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John refuses to pretend to be his own boss.
An English language teacher in the city, he says some schools in Dublin are dodging tax by forcing teachers to become self-employed, instead of paying them as PAYE workers.
“They tell you, ‘You are going to have to invoice us,’” he says. “They normally say it with a wink [saying], ‘We will be able to give you a bit more money because we don’t have to pay the government those taxes.’”
But John – who didn’t want to use his surname for fear that it could affect his future employment – is not self-employed; he doesn’t have his own business, he is a teacher in a school.
Roy Hassey, a regional organiser with Unite the Union says that there are several English-language schools in Dublin that are now routinely only hiring teachers who will agree to become “bogus self-employed”.
Approximately 140 English-language teachers have joined Unite, according to Hassey, and bogus self-employment is just one of the issues they face.
“The overwhelming majority are on fixed-term contracts. You could have a school with 20 teachers and not one of them is permanent,” he says.
Payrolled or Not
Whether or not somebody is employed or self-employed, is a question of fact, said a spokesperson for the Revenue Commissioners.
The agency has a code of practice to guide people if they have any doubts as to whether they are an employee or self-employed, using considerations such as whether they can sub-contract work or profit from efficiencies.
A self-employed person “has control over what is done, how itis done, when and where it is done,” it says.
Companies sometimes pretend an employee is a self-employed contractor – a practice known as bogus self-employment – as they can avoid payroll taxes that way.
For those listed as self-employed, the arrangement means that they aren’t entitled to social-welfare payments should they become unemployed.
It isn’t a good position for those in precarious employment, said John, the teacher.
Searching for work a year and a half ago, he called a school that was advertising positions, looking for people to start straight away.
He says that they told him on the phone that the pay was €15 an hour. Was that before or after tax? he asked. “They said, ‘That is up to you,’” he says.
He would have to invoice the school at the end of each month, and would be responsible for his own taxes, he says he was told. He refused to do that. He didn’t get the job.
More recently, another school initially told him the same thing. He refused again, and was able to talk them into giving him a contract, instead, he says.
Teachers usually don’t report this practice to the Revenue Commissioners, because “there is a serious culture of fear,” says Keith Murdiff, an English-language teacher and union representative. He believes that teachers are “blacklisted” if they speak up.
Hassey, the organiser with Unite, says that while some types of bogus self-employment are more complicated to prove, he thinks the line has clearly been crossed at language schools.
A teacher in a school does not control their hours of work and cannot subcontract work, so they don’t fit the criteria for being self-employed, he says.
“To me it’s black and white,” he says.
Hassey says that bogus self-employment is an issue at five or six schools in the city, but that some of the other issues raised by English-language teachers are pervasive across the sector.
These include “if-and-when” contracts, which are similar to zero-hours contracts; a lack of permanent posts; low pay when all hours are accounted for; and not getting sick pay.
“There is no legal obligation on an employer to pay sick pay, but most good employers will do it,” says Hassey. “I’ve yet to come across a school that does that.”
The average wage is between €17 and €19 per hour, says Murdiff, but in a lot of cases this also includes your holiday pay, he says.
“They tell you the pay is €19 an hour, but when I take holidays they are unpaid, so it is a very disingenuous way of speaking, it’s misleading.”
Also, English-language teachers must prepare classes, mark work, meet with students, hand over information to other teachers, and attend training, all on their own time, says Murdiff.
On average, English-language teachers put in an extra 10 to 12 hours per week for which they are not paid, he says.
There’s also the issue of not having permanent contracts. Hassey says he has spoken to more than 300 teachers and fewer than 10 of them had permanent contracts.
Many schools let all their staff go in November and re-hire in January in order to avoid paying holiday pay for Christmas, Hassey says. “It’s not all schools but it is not unusual,” he says.
Normally contracts are fixed-term, part-time contracts for 15 hours per week, says Murdiff. “Many of them run 11-month contracts and then you are let go in November and you have to go and sign on for the month.”
The last time this happened him, he was informed by the social welfare officer that he wasn’t entitled to the payment. “You are not unemployed,” they told him.
The majority of the schools are open all year round, he says, so while some of the work is seasonal they should also be able to have at least some full-time teaching staff. “All the ones that take students on visas from outside the European Union have to be year-round schools,” he says.
The lack of permanent employment means workers can’t get mortgages and causes stress and anxiety, he says.
“It’s a culture of fear and intransigence that they have created because ultimately they don’t have to pay you as much, they don’t have to give you a pay-scale or deal with the fact that you might want to join a union,” says Murdiff.
“They can hire and fire at will, what corporation wouldn’t want to have that.”
Layli Foroudi says she really liked working at an English-language centre in Dublin. “I found them really great,” she says. “It was a nice place to work.”
Foroudi was paid between €23 and €24 per hour, so even factoring in the fact that she wasn’t paid for preparation, she was happy with the money. The more experienced you become the less time you need to spend preparing, she says.
“The hourly rate is very good,” she says. “My students were really great, it was an enjoyable, interesting job.”
The flexible contracts suited her too, as she was working on other projects and didn’t want to have major commitments. But she thinks the lack of permanency would be an issue for people with children and mortgages.
Foroudi says she has heard that at other schools in Dublin, working conditions are not good.
“I’d interviewed for another school and I was so glad I didn’t take the job,” she says. “You could just tell they were a shambles, even through the interview process.”
Rob McComish, director of Everest Language School says that the English-language teaching industry has had its reputation badly damaged by the practices of some schools in recent years.
Most of these schools have now closed, he says. “But there continue to be schools offering teachers ridiculously low pay in order to be able to offer students unsustainably low prices.”
Many schools are trying to offer teachers more job security, he says.
The industry has been waiting for the “International Education Mark” – an inspection and quality-check for schools – to be implemented, he said.
“I would hope that increased academic oversight and regulation would force a rise in standards for teachers and students by weeding out any remaining rouge operators,” he says.
Marketing English in Ireland (MEI) is a trade body that represents 65 schools, but they don’t represent them in terms of employment issues, said CEO David O’Grady.
“MEI is a trade association, not an employers’ group nor a trade union,” he says. “Therefore, we are not privy to the commercial arrangements or to the contractual arrangements of our members.”
It is part of their articles of association that all member schools must be compliant with all legislation regarding health and safety and employment law, he says.
“In situations where employees feel they have grievances, then there are state mechanisms available for them to be able to vent their grievances and seek redress,” says O’Grady.
The total spend in the economy by MEI members’ students is thought to be in excess of €600 million per year, he says.
[CORRECTION: This article was updated on 11.41am on 29 September, to correct a quotation from Layli Foroudi about the language school she didn’t go work for. Apologies for the error.]