By New Worker correspondent
It is not just the big unions that are leading class struggle. At the Delfin English Language School in leafy Bloomsbury Square near the British Museum, a small band of teachers are fighting back.
Just before Christmas all staff at the private college that teaches English as a foreign language were made redundant. Ten teachers, many of whom had been loyal employees for several years, were given the news on 20 December after the close of business. Most are members of the TEFL Workers’ Union, a street union set up by the anarchist Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) movement last year to represent workers in the TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) industry.
They say this is Management pay-back for a series of victories won by the union in August. This action secured paid sick days, paid training sessions and the promise of an end to zero-hour contracts, and even proper contracts. Earlier last year managers had tried to divide the workforce by offering various pay rises on condition of confidentiality.
After some improvements a new owner arrived and promptly broke their promise to end zero-hour contracts.
Teachers started taking low-level actions at work that culminated in a “plan-in”. On one occasion 10 out of the 12 teachers arrived at work on time but spent the first hour in the staff room planning their lessons as a group. But management still refused to reinstate the offer of guaranteed-hours contracts and began disciplinary action against eight of the workers, and continue to refuse to pay staff for time spent planning and preparing lessons.
IWW organiser Anna Clark said: “Last minute school closures and Christmas time redundancies are all-too-common in this industry. It’s heartening to see the Delfin teachers take a stand and fight back. They have the full support of the union.”
Redundancy normally means the employee’s job role is no longer needed by the company. Since school re-opened after the Christmas break, however, Delfin has employed teachers from the Evocation cover agency to do the exact same work.
One of the teachers had this to say: “We’re in a state of shock. We work hard and we like our jobs. The way we were treated – a five-day redundancy process, getting sacked the Friday before Christmas – it feels incredibly disrespectful.”
Another added that: “This is the culmination of years of mistreatment from senior management, who have repeatedly broken promises, backtracked, threatened, abused and ultimately ignored us, and finally dumped us in this most callous way – I’m disgusted at them.”
IWW says it will be take Delfin to an employment tribunal unless the school begins negotiating over the redundancies.
This is typical of the industry. Teaching English as a Foreign Language is a dodgy business. Those with the grandest names are often a couple of rooms above a kebab shop and the standard of English taught is not always of a high standard. Employing migrant workers whose immigration papers may not be in order in back-room roles and students desperate to pay off their student debt makes it easy for bosses to exploit.
The TEFL Workers’ Union has claimed a number of successes in London. At TEFL schools across London, it has helped a group of teachers claim holiday pay unlawfully denied to them, won thousands of pounds for a teacher forced to undertake bogus ‘teacher training’ classes, won a pay-out for a receptionist who was unfairly dismissed, won thousands of pounds in unpaid wages for a group of teachers when their school unexpectedly closed down, and guided a group of teachers through a collective grievance in order to challenge discrimination.
It hopes to establish a ‘TEFL charter’ that outlines a minimum standard of pay and conditions and demand that all London schools finally provide decent working conditions to all staff. Plans to expand beyond London are afoot.