Schools teaching English as a foreign language (TEFL) are a real money-spinner – but not for many of the teachers they employ, who often find themselves on the wrong end of zero-hour and fixed-term contracts, with no sick pay or remuneration for preparation time.
Some of these language schools are multimillion pound outfits operating on a global scale. One such, Kaplan International, owned by the US conglomerate Graham Holdings, farms profits from schools spanning 25 sites internationally. Kaplan is currently estimated to be worth about £2bn, and can certainly afford to give its employees decent pay and conditions.
Last autumn, Kaplan made a number of teachers redundant, but failed to pay out the correct redundancy pay for workers with less than three years of service.
By forcing workers to sign up to fire-and-rehire rolling contracts, renewed every few weeks, Kaplan sought to skim the teachers’ entitlements. Since the length of service was mendaciously calculated from the most recent fixed-term contract, many teachers wound up short-changed on redundancy and furlough pay.
However, Kaplan has met with some collective resistance from the workers, organised by the TEFL union, part of the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World).
Whilst much larger and better-funded trade unions have fought shy of trying to organise in the notoriously precarious English language teaching sector, the union has elicited an undertaking from Kaplan to move remaining employees on to permanent contracts. The union is still fighting to get justice for those redundant staff who lost out financially thanks to Kaplan’s double-dealing.
The arrival on the scene of a number of unions like the IWW, ready and willing to organise workers stuck in the far reaches of the gig economy, is a hugely welcome development and serves as an urgent reminder to the union movement that the whole reason for having unions is to fight the workers’ corner everywhere, not just in the ‘safe’ public sector.