Despite New Law, Some English-Language Teachers Say They Still Struggle with Precarity

In March, the government brought in the Employment (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2018, meant to provide workers with more security and predictability in working hours.

Since 4 March, an employee can ask to be put in a “band” of hours that reflects the average amount of hours they work a week within a 12-month period.

Those who worked an average of 16 hours a week in the last year, say, can go in band D – and have to get between 16 hours and 21 hours a week going forward.

That’s meant to help make people’s working hours – and therefore their pay – more stable, so they’re not stuck swinging back and forth between feast and famine, at their employer’s whim.

But some schools are discouraging teachers from asking for new contracts based on the new legislation, say some teachers.

The contracts can have very long probationary periods, and employers are writing in exceptions that allow them to cut working hours to zero under certain conditions, they said.

“Our manager, for the weeks before March, was going around, cornering people in the corridor, saying ‘You’re about a band D, right Colm?’” says Colm Ardiff, a teacher at north-side Dublin school.

“He was trying to kind of write it down. The banded system is not supposed to work like that. You’re supposed to request. We ask for no more meetings in corridors.”

Banded Hours

It took Ardiff six months to get full-time work at the school where he teaches.

Newer teachers were put on an “hours list” and gradually worked their way up the list from part-time to full-time hours, he says.

Sitting outside a cafe in Terenure, Ardiff – who’s been at the school two years now – goes through his contract, with a separate set of written notes scrutinising almost every section.

His school offered teachers a permanent contract in March, the week the legislation came into effect, he says.

New provisions like sick pay and a four-week notice period are welcome. But he and other teachers have yet to sign it, because they say they’ve found some inconsistencies, he says.

For example, the contract says Ardiff will work a minimum of three hours a day and a minimum of 20 hours a week.

“The minimum hours don’t add up,” he says. “If I’m working a minimum of three hours a day, that’s 15 hours a week.”

No Recognition for Extra Work

Salaries vary from school to school. Ardiff says he gets €20 an hour.

Despite the legislation, Ardiff says that teachers in his school are relegated to banded hours that don’t actually reflect how long they’re working because they are not paid for preparation time.

“We’re trying to get union recognition in the workplace. We started that about six months ago,” he says. “We’re organising around things like unpaid preparation time, unpaid breaks.”

Ardiff gets a €12 per hour administration rate to attend meetings, which came after he and other teachers teachers in his school wrote to management about the issue.

Ciarán Gallagher works at another city-centre school. He’s been in the profession for over 13 years and makes €22 an hour for teaching.

A full-time teacher spends on average one to two hours a day outside of the classroom working on extra material without being paid for it, he says.

“[It’s for] class preparations, corrections, one-to-one meetings, helping students with CVs, correcting exams,” he says.

At his school, teachers are not paid for breaks or over a two-week Christmas period, except for bank holidays.

Barry Crushell, a solicitor for Dublin-based firm Tully Rinckey who specialises in employment law, says he would view grading and class preparation as “ancillary” to their core role and therefore, it should be paid.

“I would be very surprised if the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) didn’t take a very strict interpretation of what did or did not constitute as work in these circumstances,” Crushell says.

According to Crushell, the WRC will most likely regard these roles as working time and therefore those employees should be receiving adequate compensation for it.

Different for Each School

Justin Quinn, managing director of the Centre of English Studies (CES), which has schools in Ireland, the UK and Canada, says rates of pay are different for every school. (None of the teachers mentioned in this piece teach at CES.)

Quinn’s teachers are paid for breaks, class preparation and to attend meetings, he says. But for doing other work like social media or marketing for the school, they’ll be paid the same hourly wage as an administrator in the school, which is lower than the teaching rate.

There are clearly defined rules for what would be deemed as administrative and what counts as teaching, he says. He says teachers in his school are paid €21 to €27 per hour for teaching.

Dissuading Teachers

Colette Godkin, secretary of the English-language teachers (ELT) branch for the union Unite, says some of members have requested new contracts since the new legislation came in.

“Some employers have been using cynical tactics to discourage teachers from applying for the new, banded hour contracts,” Godkin said.

One school suggested that a teacher might have to do extra work or have other duties in addition to teaching, she says.

The school suggested that they would have to work weekends, she said, and that they would have to do administrative work, at a lower hourly rate.

“This goes against the spirit of the legislation,” she says.

Crushell, the solicitor, says that this comes down to the agreement between the employee and employer.

The Workplace Relations Commission will accept that if the work is vastly different and requires less experience than the employee’s normal duties, then a lower pay rate is expected, he says.

“The greater degree of divergence between the type of work that’s being done, then the more likely it is that the divergence in pay will be accepted,” he says.

But, he says, if there’s a close correlation between the types of work, but a big disparity in the pay (like for test corrections and preparation time), that would be a “cause for concern”.

Still Insecure

Ardiff’s contract says new teachers have to serve a nine-month probationary period – in other words, an entire school year. During this period, sick pay isn’t allowed.

“I think nine months is far too long a probationary period considering a school can sign teachers on for spring/summer/autumn period and let them go in winter,” he writes in his notes. “Thereby still insecure.”

Another section Ardiff says he finds confusing is the “temporary work-shortage clause”.

The contract states that “if there is a temporary shortage of work for any reason, including periods of adverse weather, which prevents the company from operating normally, we will try to maintain your continuity of employment” even if this means putting a teacher on “a reduced working week, short time working or alternatively, on lay off”.

According to the contract, if a teacher is placed on a reduced working week, their pay will be reduced according to time actually worked. They don’t get paid if they are placed on a layoff. The school says it will give as much notice as “reasonably practicable” for any shortage of work.

You must receive a minimum payment if you are called in to work but sent home without work, the legislation says, but there’s exceptions for emergencies, exceptional circumstances or short-term relief.

Crushell says that in his experience, a company needs to make a policy in advance if they plan to make deductions based on adverse weather.

However, he says, the employer needs to be careful and the onus is on them to prove that any layoff or interruption of continuity in the contract was genuine and not a way to circumvent legislation.

Precarious Work

Later, Ardiff talks about how the precarious nature of the job has affected him. He says he feels less pressured than his coworkers.

“Personally I’m a little austere anyway, he says. “I live in a box room where the bed is basically in the room, I would predominantly cook my own meals and lunch.”

For teachers with families, or looking to buy a house, going years without secure-hour contracts in the past caused difficulties getting a mortgage from the bank, he says. “A lot of my friends would have trouble getting mortgages.”

“Some other people [have] two or three kids,” he says. “If your wage isn’t rising in any consummate way, or even with the standard of living, rent is [increasing], your purchasing power is constantly, constantly declining.”

Ciarán Gallagher, who has been in the industry for over 13 years, said English-language teaching is “precarious work”. “It totally suits the employer to the detriment of really good teachers,” he says.

“We’re expected to be professionals and have professional qualifications, but our contracts resemble something like a kitchen porter might have and the rights they might have,” he says.

Setting a Floor

Pat King, the former general secretary of the Association of Secondary Teachers, Ireland (ASTI), was assigned by Minister for Higher Education Mary Mitchell O’Connor to meet with employer and employee representatives from the ELT sector.

According to King, this came after the sudden closure of Grafton College in December 2018, which left around 20 teachers unpaid. There was also a series of closures in 2014 and 2015.

King says he has been meeting with “all sides”, including trade unions, teachers, and representatives from over 90 different schools since January.

Although King said he couldn’t go into too much detail about the mediation process, he says he is looking to see if both sides can agree to set a floor on pay and hours and contracts, and securities.

But the process has been “challenging”, King said.

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Author:

Aura McMenamin: Aura McMenamin is a city reporter covering mainly the south-east of the city, and jobs. You can reach her at aura@dublininquirer.com.

Reader responses

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OM
at 5 June at 22:41

As a civil servant involved in drafting this legislation, I am glad that it is making real changes to teachers in the ELT sector. The nature of employment law is that there has to be some traction between employers and employees. If you give a new employment right, you have to allow employers some exceptions. Law should never be too rigid or else it won't work. If an employee believes an employer is circumventing the legislation, simply fill out the online form on workplacerelations.ie The WRC is a free service and cases will be resolved either by mediation or adjudication. Decisions are anonymised and there are strong anti-penalisation provisions.

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