#ELTchat on Working Conditions in EFL

It was good to take part in Wednesday’s EFL chat on workplace conditions, but it was short notice and my battery ran out on the train (delayed for an hour and a half with no air conditioning on the hottest day of the year!)

What emerged from the discussion was a growing consensus that workplace conditions need to be taken seriously at an international level. While there are obvious local differences that shouldn’t be overlooked, there are also common concerns that teachers experience across contexts.

The TEFL industry operates on a transnational scale, with globally recognised qualifications (CELTA/DELTA), exams (IELTS/TOEFL) and standardised curricula (often in the form of coursebooks) that transcend national borders. We also, in general, experience poor pay and precarious contracts despite the stable and enduring demand for the English language.

Collective bargaining does occur at school level (employees enter into agreement with their employers), but unions work at larger levels, engaging in policy making at regional, national and international levels. There’s also no reason why there can’t be an international teachers’ organisation with members joining local unions with local arrangements … that sounds pretty good to me.

I think that it is time, and there is appetite for, a formal transnational teachers’ association, which unlike IATEFL would organise around workplace rights and use various legal and employment instruments to achieve better conditions. One model may be to look at how @ELTadvocacy in Dublin have organised locally and scale this up in order to organise across countries, sharing advice and solidarity along the way. A transnational teachers’ organisation would have a seat at the top table of the big TEFL events, such as IATEFL and TESOL asserting our presence within the industry. We could also use our collective bargaining power to provide ourselves with access to services such as pensions/financial advice, legal advice or counselling services (which all workers could benefit from). This is currently absent in the TEFL industry.



10 steps for organising in TEFL schools

For the majority of us TEFL is an insecure, low-paid, low-status profession and it is difficult to be able to bargain for better pay, terms and conditions without organised workplaces. Without collective bargaining, there will only ever be downward pressures on pay and conditions in the industry. Nobody can improve their own workplace conditions without first having the support and solidarity of their colleagues. However, organising the profession can be done, and has been done in schools in Canada, the US, the UK, Spain and Ireland. Organisers from TaWSIG and ELT Advocacy Ireland offer this excellent advice on organising the profession:

  1. Talk to other teachers you know and trust: do your best to organize locally and physically. Get people to real face-to-face meetings where your ex-colleagues and current colleagues can meet. Only a small percent can/ want to/ know how to help you organize ELT better in your city. If you have a lot of new teachers invited to a meeting, have a speaker. Don’t just let it become a rant session. (Everyone knows things are bad). Have a designated moderator. Keep minutes. Have a sign-in sheet.  These meetings are the means you need to build a large network- and to structure it- to amplify your voice. You don’t need a bunch of individual needy voices. You need to unite and work together to build policies, strategies and victories.
  2. Put on events for English Language Teachers: These can be lesson swaps, ELT Maker Nights, table quizzes, drinks nights, TED-like ELT events, weekend conferences or just getting together for coffee and a focused chat on a weeknight.
  3. Do surveys: Do them and publish the results in (and out) of ELT publications. Comparative surveys help ELT workers get a sense of place in their local economy and the global community. Sometimes ELT publishers will send around your surveys to their contact lists as well if you remind them they can access the results. They like this and it worked in France’s large (300+ teachers) survey. It gives them insight into their work in interpreting your local teaching community (or their market). Take advantage of them. Your goal should be to make every survey include something about THE LIVES OF TEACHERS: (Example question topics: do the participants have/support children, do they own or rent a home, are they caretakers for their parents or siblings, how do they get to school, how much prep and post-lesson time do they spend, do they buy their own ELT books, what type of contract do they have, how long do they plan to spend teaching English, what type of ELT training to they have, what’s their pay rate, how long have they been teaching).
  4. Meet: set up a city-wide Open Meeting in your union hall -or in a neutral venue like an arts centre or hotel- to listen to teachers from other sectors and hear organization stories.
  5. Organize outside: Set up an English Language Teachers association outside the union with a primary focus on researching, communicating and advancing the terms and conditions of ELT as work, a job and a career. Ours was called ELT Advocacy Ireland and it provided a way for teachers with no union or in different unions to get together and talk about how to coordinate and unite.
  6. Organize inside: Be the union rep for your school. Get union training and encourage everyone you know to do so. Get a seat at the union’s decision-making table and present how your profession works to the other union reps from the other sectors your union represents whenever you meet with them. This will help you push for a recognition of what ELT work is and how the sector you represent is exploiting the members you represent. Without this understanding in the union empowerment of ELT workers seems very vague to most general unions. Also, some unions become corrupt or lazy. The solution here is an internal action group which can meet to influence committee decisions in a more radical direction. Pair up with like-minded reps inside the union and form a radical faction which will force the union to consider radical positions and militant action more and more frequently. This is how to influence how your union operates as a conservative or radical force for change in your sector.
  7. Shop around: Approach other unions with the predicament of language teachers and ask if they would or do represent ELT. If you have the best union for ELT people, talk to your branch organizer’s direct superior.
  8. Write together: produce a blog, website or newspaper for ELT workers where they can read about other ELT workers positions and see the common ground they share. Make sure teachers do the writing. Keep inviting new people to write. Keep inviting those who have written to write again. Your publication should be free to say the ugly truths about the industry as you experience it in your context. Avoid naming names directly. No opposition from an owner or chain or union or publisher should be able to stop it being published or influence what you write and publish/print. In this way workers can reveal all the issues and pressures wherever they arise from. A forum like this creates a common space for and by teachers. Our publication was a paper-only (no internet posting) newspaper called Photocopy This. Teachers could write for it, photocopy it and then share it individually with their friends at their workplace or former workplace. It is not connected or beholden to any group or union or association and freely discussed dozens of topics affecting teachers’ lives in our city from unpaid prep to crisis pregnancies.
  9. Reproduce: As soon as you have 3 people talking about things locally, set up a meeting somewhere you like. Meet every week or couple of weeks and plan your next meeting. This group can develop into a core team or committee to organize larger Open Meetings by contacting speakers, managing social media in the lead-in and preparing materials to distribute on the night. The goal should be to organize more of these teams representing more specific types of ELT workers: workers in a specific geographic area, workers on university campuses, in chain schools, freelancers, non-union, part-timers. 
  10. Find a core: In Dublin, we organized around long-term teachers with poor conditions which weren’t improving despite dedication, improvements or higher profits. We organize around precarious contracts for low-paid work. We also organized around events like college closures and new regulations.

If you or your colleagues are concerned about the low status and poor conditions in the TEFL profession, please get in touch. We would love to hear your stories and we can provide advice and signpost you in the right direction. It doesn’t matter what country you are in or whether you are a public sector worker, private school teacher or freelance, we all have an interest in improving the TEFL profession.

TEFL Workers of the World, UNITE! … or ATL, UCU or IWW

Workplace concerns and workplace representation still represents a major source of disquiet for TEFL teachers.

One of the main problems in presenting a united front for teachers is that we are so disparate. There is no single forum that represents TEFL teachers’ interests nor a common bond which unites us. The transnational nature of the industry is also a major barrier to organising.

However, there is increasingly a consensus that teachers need representation, and that this would benefit the TEFL industry as a whole. So, how do we organise?

… but which one? In an industry which tends not to be unionised, there are a number of choices for teachers. I know the UK context best, so I’m going to summarise the main unions who represent EFL teachers in the UK.


The Association of Teachers and Lecturers (who are currently in negotiations to merger with NUT to create the biggest teachers union in Europe) was our choice when we unionised at Liverpool International College (and they were fabulous). The advantages of ATL are that they represent teachers in both the private and public sectors and they offer regular CPD sessions to members, depending on demand. You can find out more about ATL on their website.


I am a member and a rep for UCU. UCU is the biggest union which represents teachers of adults, almost exclusively in the college and university sectors, but also in private language schools. UCU are an influential union and have run some excellent campaigns on casualisation, workplace stress and inequality in the workplace.


UNITE are part of the world’s biggest trade union (in 2008 they merged with United Steel Workers in the US and have a presence in USA, Canada and Australia). While UNITE are not specifically a teaching union, they will represent all workers. UNITE are the chosen union for TEFL teachers in Dublin and they have had significant success in representing teachers there.

IWW (International Workers of the World)

Although just a small union, I have a soft spot for the IWW because they punch above their weight. IWW are an active union and represent workers, and have had real (and impressive) success, in the so-called “gig economy” (against the likes of UBER and Deliveroo). They are an international union and campaign strongly for the rights of migrant workers.

There are dozens of other unions. I think we need to start building a consensus as to which union would be the automatic choice for TEFL teachers (in the UK). We also need to think about how representation can cross borders – how can we organise the industry to represent workers in different countries, with their own local conditions, but part of the same global industry? It’s not easy, but it is possible.

Coventry University Union Recognition

It is not often that we read stories of union recognition at a university, considering how common union membership is in public education (all public universities in the UK have collective bargaining arrangements). But EAP teachers at Coventry University (which is not even the best university in Coventry) have made national news as they have had to defend their bargaining rights after the university took them away.

However, once staff had won their case, the university told them that in order to work for them, staff would need to join an agency (owned by Coventry University) that doesn’t recognise unions.

Coventry University have been very aggressive in pursuit of the fees that international students bring in. A fifteen week pre-sessional course costs £4,125, while a one year International Foundation Programme costs £13,995. Once living expenses and accommodation are factored in (international students tend to live, shop and socialise on or near campuses), this adds up to a lot of money for the university. There is big money in international students, but it is a risky market with high competition.

On the other hand, tutor pay for these courses at Coventry starts at about £7,726 for a 15-week course (£26,785.20 per annum pro rata). Contracts tend to be short-term and a tutor may work for years on short term-contracts with no opportunities for career progression.

Meanwhile, vice-chancellor pay is secret.

Nevertheless, I suspect that Coventry University’s actions are not legal, considering they are asking the same teachers to do the same work on different terms. But post-Brexit, it is likely that we will see more and more of these shenanigans by employers.

The Universities and Colleges Union (UCU) have set up a petition in support of the EAP teachers. Please show your support by signing the petition.

Vancouver English Centre Strike – Update

After four weeks of strike action, teachers at the Vancouver School of English were shocked to find that management had decided to close the school instead of continue negotiating with the teachers. Student and staff were notified by a terse statement posted on the front door of the school.


Good luck to students and staff – hope you find alternatives soon.

More information can be found here and here.


Vancouver Teachers’ Strike

Sorry everyone for the long break between blog posts. I’m delighted that we have added an Ireland section to our Know your rights page and hopefully soon we will be adding a US section in time. I am running this site as a volunteer – I’d like to be active, but real life sometimes gets in the way.


Over the summer, I heard about the Vancouver English Centre – who have gone on strike over pay and conditions. They are represented by the ETEA – a union of teachers in British Columbia, Canada. You can follow them on Twitter and express your support.

Good luck.

The Real Kaplan Experience

What do you do if you live in one of the world’s most expensive cities, yet earn just over minimum wage, have no holiday, no sick pay and an inadequate “health plan”? This was the situation that confronted EFL teachers working for Kaplan International Colleges’ three centres in New York.

Their response? In 2012, they organised to become the first private ESL school in the USA to unionise. Despite facing a strongly anti-union employer, staff voted 52-28 in favour of being recognised by the Communication Workers of America.

Teachers at Kaplan NY were paid on average $20-24,000 per annum and given part-time status, despite many teachers working 95% full-time hours, meaning that they were ineligible for sick pay or holiday pay.

The unionisation process itself was marked by hostile and intimidating tactics by the employer, which included a bombardment of flyers, individual interviews of staff, ’employee rights training’ meetings and other ploys. These were all successfully refuted.


However, the unionisation process created an often toxic atmosphere in the workplace, as staff were pitted against each other. According to organiser Jon Blanchette, “Kaplan teachers have always worked with an understanding that they could be ‘disappeared’ at any time, for any reason, and left jobless … so much fear was in the air that there were teachers afraid of talking to a union supporter”. Given the employers’ strong anti-union stance, the victory was remarkable, and set a strong precedence in the struggle for employment rights in the ESL industry.

After recognition, the union successfully negotiated a much-improved contract (though it wasn’t easy), providing:

  • “Just cause” language for terminations
  • A grievance and arbitration procedure
  • A clear progressive discipline process
  • Paid bereavement leave for all employees
  • A minimum hourly rate for all employees
  • Protections from subcontracting of work
  • Increase in the prep time rate to $12 per hour from the current $8 per hour (NYC minimum wage)
  • Creation of a new position, senior part-time teacher, which will be entitled to paid holidays, vacation and personal days
  • A company-paid subsidy of $20.33 per pay period toward the cost of health insurance for employees who purchased insurance coverage (pay-periods are bi-weekly)
  • A 401(k) matching contribution of 1 percent for part-time employees (currently, part-time employees are not eligible to participate in the 401(k) plan)
  • A 401(k) matching contribution of 2 percent for full-time employees, with an increase to a match of 3 percent after five years of service.

The fight that Kaplan teachers had to go through does not have to be repeated. If you and your colleagues are looking to create a union presence in your workplace, then point to the success of Kaplan teachers (and others who I will blog about separately).

Since Kaplan New York achieved recognition, a number of ESL schools in the US followed suit, namely Kaplan Chicago, EF Boston, St Giles, San Francisco and Micropower, New York. In addition, Kaplan Toronto and Vancouver, Kaplan Liverpool and EF Dublin have also achieved union recognition.

You can read the full story here, or follow their blog or Facebook page for more information.

If you are interested in organising your workplace, please get in touch.

What is Collective Bargaining?

The billion-euro TEFL industry/profession has developed separately from mainstream education, and for the most part TEFL is characterised by poor pay, low status and precarious contracts. This undermines the profession – meaning that often the best teachers leave to find other employment.

However, there is an alternative for those of us who have made TEFL our career: collective bargaining – the right to negotiate pay, hours and conditions and any other workplace matter with an employer.

How collective bargaining works

The right to collective bargaining is protected by law in most countries (and in all OECD countries). It works through the establishment of a joint negotiating committee (JNC), represented by employers on the one side, and employees and their recognised trade union on the other. The joint negotiating committee meets a number of times a year to discuss pay and working conditions. It is not a one-sided committee; the employer can raise issues as well, and the JNC works as a forum to improve work practices and industrial relations. Joint negotiating committees are not just a talking shop – they have real powers, and what is agreed in these meetings becomes workplace practice. Collective bargaining is a system that works and companies with collective bargaining agreements enjoy higher productivity, while employees may have better pay, conditions and safer and more equal workplaces.

Bargaining Unit

The bargaining unit is made up of the employees represented in a collective bargaining agreement. A bargaining unit may not represent all staff (usually teachers and admin staff are represented in different bargaining units by different unions). Sometimes an employer may argue that some employees may not be part of a collective bargaining agreement (for example, middle managers). In this case, who makes up the bargaining unit may be decided by a tribunal.

Union recognition

There are two ways to establish union recognition in the UK (and it is similar in other countries). The first is called voluntary recognition, where the employers accept a trade union to represent their members in the workplace. The second way is called statutory recognitionwhere a tribunal forces the employer to recognise a trade union if they don’t agree to it voluntarily. In order to do this, the trade union must fulfil certain criteria (such as have a minimum of 10% of the workforce as members) and demonstrate that a majority of employees (not just members) within a bargaining unit support the recognition of the union, usually by a secret ballot.

Collective bargaining is the only way that workers can have an effective voice at work.

There has been a lot of good work by teachers and trade unions in Europe, North America and further afield in establishing local collective bargaining agreements. The battle has been won now – teachers at schools across the world can point to agreements in New York, Liverpool, Chicago, Barcelona, Dublin and other cities to show that collective bargaining is a fundamental right in the struggle for better conditions for EFL teachers.