Above: Day 156 on the picket line. Members of the ELT branch, Rachel Kavanagh (far left); Branch Chairman, Ciaran Gallagher; Branch Treasurer, John Whipple and Margaret Gillan (far right), visit striking Mandate members at the Debenhams picket line in Parnell Street, Dublin last week.
Last Thursday, Sept. 10th, members of the Unite ELT Branch and Committee visited the Debenhams store picket line to hand over a letter of support to our comrades. Having made a donation from our branch the previous week, we arranged to follow up by handing over a signed letter of solidarity and support to the inspirational strikers on the Parnell Street goods entrance to the store.
The strikers spirits were high and we were given a warm welcome by the striking Mandate members who at the time were approaching a remarkable 160 days on the picket lines at all Debenhams stores around Ireland.
The determined Debenhams staff are seeking 4 weeks (”2 +2″ ) pay per year worked in their redundancy settlement negotiations with liquidator KPMG. The total amount offered by KPMG on behalf of the retailer was a paltry €1 million, which is nowhere near the €13 million workers say is due to them in a previous collective agreement with management. Workers claim the company, which still has over 120 UK stores in operation and an estimated €95 million in cash reserves, can well afford to keep their word and stick to the collective agreement.
Some of the staff we met had been employed for over 20 years and were resolute in their intentions to maintain the blockade on the various Irish stores countrywide to prevent the company removing the stock, that they estimate to be worth at least €15 million in the Henry Street store alone.
It should be noted that if companies such as Debenhams can get away without having to honour their full redundancy obligations to staff in Ireland the statutory redundancy bill falls in the government’s lap. That means companies like Debenhams can rob their workers of their hard-earned entitlements after years and, in some cases, decades of loyal service and leave the Irish exchequer to pick up the tab. It’s an absolute scandal and you can only admire the courage and steely determination of the strikers to stand up to the bosses and KPMG. Just a couple of days prior to our visit, KPMG had actually withdrawn the derisory €1m. offer from the negotiating table.
The valiant Debenhams strikers have now spent a whopping 163 days on the picket lines which is the longest running strike/picket in the history of the Irish state.
This second survey by Unite ELT finds 149 English Language Teachers in Ireland believe that living and teaching through the Covid-19 Pandemic has not just been stressful and costly and damaging. Uniquely government has excluded the entire teaching body stakeholder group from all talks to relieve or improve their conditions or discuss conditions for safe return.
Teachers indicate situation may have been less damaging if managers and owners had communicated with them more regularly or would begin to do so. For example, teachers were not informed by their schools of a publicly funded state-chaired Working Group on the English Language Education sector established just after the restrictions for the sector had been officially extended to cover the ELE sector. Nor were teachers informed of their rights while working from home, with exceptions in only a few cases across the 149 teachers responding. Most report having received fewer than 3 emails over the course of the entire pandemic.
In tandem government’s ongoing unilateral policy of exclusion from the ELE Sector Working Group discussions of people who work for wages the English Language Education (ELE) sector is seen as something that is against their interests.
Added to these areas, was a question about physical health. As workers COVID Ireland this question is more necessary because workers in Irish ELE, just as in other sectors, are faced with a de facto imposition further precarity by government choices to priortise or, in the case of the ELE sector, to exclusively engage in owner-focussed policies, talks, and practice. These exclusionary choices are at the expense of working precarious teachers and predicated on the exclusion of all employees and working people in the sector, unionised or otherwise.
There is also an extensive section detailing ELE operators transition to and practice of operating online teaching with government consent and mandate.
These findings may be a valuable resource for students and student-side stakeholders who are seeking evidence or looking for a view from inside the online classrooms giving vital context for the relative inaction of Irish quality bodies and government departmental policies.
These policies and procedures allowed for-profit schools a free hand with the setting, measurement, recording and enforcement of standards regarding level of student service, refund policies and quality provision.
This may be especially important to stakeholders who are excluded because of the absence of public records of the exclusionary state-chaired ELE Working Group’s decisions regarding the English Language Education sector in Ireland at the time this article and this report are released.
It is recommended that the government’s ELE sector Working Group include teacher representatives as soon as possible.
BACKGROUND AND METHODOLOGY
Unite ELT Branch commissioned this second survey in May 2020 at the height of the first wave of the COVID-19 Pandemic in Ireland.
The survey was open for approximately one month 2/6/2020-3/7/2020. It was emailed to all Unite ELT members and publicised on various ELT channels. Participants were encouraged to share the survey with members and non-members alike to get the largest available sample.
The results of that survey indicated three areas for further research. Questions for all respondents focussed on four themes:
Communications during COVID-19;
In total there were 149 valid responses out of 153 responses. Approximately 78 participants accessed a Teaching Online section which was written with the input of a large number of members. These questions were accessible through a branching structure which revealed an extensive set of questions on their experience of Teaching Online.
Below is are the graphs representing the information in the responses to the survey.
For further comment or analysis see the full report.
Unite ELT Branch supports the strike action UPE (Union of Professional Educators) Malta are currently undertaking in protest at their hostile employer Club Class. Communications with Club Class broke down during the pandemic after UPE made numerous attempts to engage with management only to be ignored time and again in recent weeks. The strike began on Monday July, 6th and will continue indefinitely. The strike has garnered much media attention in Malta already and we would encourage our members to show their support by engaging with the strikers on social media and sending further messages of support over the coming days and weeks. Identical to the Irish government’s Covid-19 Working Group for ELE, the Maltese government’s ‘think tank’ for the English language sector has excluded workers representatives and unions from participating or contributing in the most undemocratic and ignorant way. Our branch, along with the TEFL Workers Union in London, has sent donations to the workers this week in solidarity with our colleagues and will continue to show support for the duration of their strike action. Feel free to click on the links below for further details.
Analysis of this survey shows that as low paid workers in a precarious sector, ELTs are under exceptional stress. This survey strongly suggests that clear regular communication with ELTs by government and owners and fair treatment of ELTs as significant stakeholders in the ELE sector in Ireland would be of benefit to teachers and students.
The ELTs surveyed have generally been working in ELT for over 5 years, are union members, and are living in rented accommodation.
They reported their schools to be functioning well, at good capacity in general, and teachers were looking forward to positive changes in the sector when their schools were closed by government order on 13 March 2020 to slow the spread of the COVID-19 Pandemic.
Teachers were generally informed by email as to the school plans and two-thirds of respondents said their schools did not offer online lessons in the immediate weeks following the restrictions.
Regarding employment, significant decisions were taken by ELT employers: termination; temporary layoff; direction to apply for the Pandemic Unemployment Payment; or whether to offer online teaching with/without reduction in hours/pay. Two-thirds were dealt with as a class of employees collectively without the benefit of individual contact. The remaining third were notified with individual arrangements. Schools at least temporarily withheld pay for about half of the respondents on Friday 13 March (ruled as force majeure) and the following Monday 16. Only about three-quarters received pay for the Irish national bank holiday 17 March. Most filed for pay normally at the end of March.
24% of respondents reported students receiving refunds. 97% said students at their school were offered some form of online learning with many price, quality, and supply issues mentioned in almost every case. Participants noted and described numerous ethical, pedagogical, labour rights, and customer rights issues indicated in the provision of online learning.
Teachers’ experience was divided: the majority were laid off at some point many after receiving a single day or afternoon of training on a video conferencing platform. Some were still teaching through the month of April. Training was problematic and class numbers were variable due to students travelling home and confusion about whether class attendance was mandatory or not during the crisis. The vast majority of teachers are concerned about their jobs, their income and accommodation. Most were not aware of the government sponsored and recommended Wage Subsidy Scheme as their ELT employers simply laid them off without engaging.
Nor were they aware that the government had established a COVID-19 Working Group for the sector. This survey shows that if they could choose who to be included, they would include teachers and students. As the situation stands, both teachers and students are currently excluded, and teachers are excluded in many cases without means of contact.
Three-quarters of respondents reported being members of a trade union - with the majority holding a favourable view of the dominant union, Unite, and a favourable view of Unite’s representation.
Teachers were severely negatively impacted by the closures and manner in which the closures were managed, how communications with their workplaces were severed, and how the nature and quality of their work and income changed. The impact on their students seems to have had a significant negative impact on teachers as well.
The recommendation of this survey is to include teachers in the Working Group for the ELE sector. This recommendation is made in the current absence of links and communication with employers and variance of links to their employers, whether current or former. Teachers are clearly significant stakeholders in the Irish ELE sector, and not only because of their student facing role. Their exclusion not only poses a risk to the teachers themselves, the students, and the schools, but is detrimental to the sector’s ability to uphold values of efficiency, inclusivity, diversity, and quality.
A move towards recognition of the importance of teachers by the COVID-19 Working Group would eliminate the need to direct the action of individual independent employers and create direct channels of communication with the teaching community who experience the problems of precarious employment in this particularly sensitive industry.
PURPOSE This survey seeks to learn about the experiences of English Language Teachers who were affected in their work in the Irish English Language Education sector because of restrictions placed on schools by the Department of Education and Skills.
PARTICPANTS The survey is open to all English Language Teachers working in Ireland currently and/or at the time of the beginning of restrictions 13 March 2020.
This survey is for all English Language Teachers including those who:
teach online for their school,
have taught for a short time,
have begun to teach more recently and/or
have never taught for their school online.
FORMAT All 15 required initial questions are multiple choice or checkbox. They are grouped into three sections. This section takes approximately 4 minutes.
If you have taught online you can access a final 20 optional follow-on questions regarding your experience of Teaching Online. These are grouped in 7 sections. The Teaching Online section takes approximately 6 minutes.
-You may review all your answers at the end of this survey before submitting. -You may request a copy of the report sent to you by email. -You can exit the survey at any time and your responses will not be submitted unless you click submit.
DATA -A sub-committee of members of the Unite ELT Branch will process the data participants voluntarily submit. -All data remains anonymous. -The survey will not request names or specific workplaces. -Emails will only be required if a copy of the results as requested by the participant. -Your personal data cannot be shared without your consent.
DATA COLLECTION AND PRESENTATION This survey will remain open for one month. Publication of data will happen as soon as possible after the survey closes.
2015 was when the College Closure Crisis was at its height. At this point, 11 ELT schools had closed in Dublin alone.
Two more schools were crumbling in April 2015. Linked by ownership, MEC and NCBA had issued IOUs instead of pay at the end of April.
Teachers stopped working and students protested in support. Students formed MEC Student Union and on Tuesday, 5th May 2015, they marched from the Oscar Wilde statue to the QQI headquarters on Denzille Lane, to the Garda National Immigration Bureau on the quays, and to the Dáil, winning national media attention for their demand that the Minister for Education #RegulateNow.
An organiser from Unite observed the march that day. Impressed, he joined us.
He helped us go on to build this Ireland-wide ELT branch and become a part of the Joint Labour Committee talks happening this year to finally regulate for better employment in our sector.