The push escalated in October of this year, when staff at Delfin English School on Parnell Square stopped work and picketed the school, in an effort to get it to recognise their union.
Now the Minister of State for Employment Pat Breen and Minister of State for Higher Education Mary Mitchell O’Connor say a joint labour committee will be set up for English-language schools.
“The JLC provides an opportunity to address many of the employment related issues that have damaged the reputation of this sector in recent years and to place the industry on a stronger footing for the years ahead,” Breen said, in a statement earlier this month.
A joint labour committee is composed of equal numbers of representatives of employers and workers in an employment sector, meeting under an independent chairperson.
It can “set minimum rates of pay, and also terms and conditions, for the workers operating within the specified sector”, said a spokesperson from the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation.
The announcement has been welcomed by some English-language teachers, such as Ciaran Gallagher, who has a wish list of measures that he would like to see brought in through the joint labour committee.
David O’Grady, the CEO of Marketing English in Ireland – which represents English language schools – said, though, that the proposed committee “is seen as politically motivated rather than a sectoral need”.
Reasons for the Committee
In June, after research into working conditions for teachers, mediator Patrick King recommended that the English-language sector get its own joint labour committee.
One should be set up “with a view to the issuing of an Employment Regulation Order (ERO) for the sector”, his report said.
An ERO sets out the conditions and pay for workers in a sector. For an ERO to come into effect, it must be adopted by the Labour Court and be given statutory effect by the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation.
“We would look for an end to precarious employment,” says Gallagher, the English-language teacher, who became involved in advocacy after a bunch of language schools closed in Dublin in 2014 and 2015.
He wants permanent, secure contracts for teachers, he says. Especially for full-time teachers who are looking to make a career in languages.
In its submission to the Labour Court Inquiry earlier this year, Marketing English Ireland said that core staff get contracts of “indefinite duration”, while non-core staff get written contracts that are usually “part-time, fixed term or specific purpose in nature”.
“The latter categories reflect the somewhat unpredictable demand and seasonal nature of the business,” the submission said.
Gallagher says he also wants to see changes to wages for teachers. Many teachers are only paid for hours they are in the classroom, which is “a big grievance”, he says.
They should be paid for preparation and correction time, and one-to-one feedback time, and the time spent helping students with CVs, he said.
A public spreadsheet put online by ELT Advocacy, which represents teachers in the sector, lists starting wages at 37 schools in Dublin that range from €13 an hour to €28.30 an hour, with most in the middle of that range. Practices vary across language schools.
“If we’re paid by the hour, why aren’t we paid for the full eight hours? We’re in from nine to five but we’re only paid for six and a half hours,” Gallagher says, speaking generally.
“If you have a joint labour committee agreement it’s a fairly substantial piece of work and it does give a lot of protection to workers,” says Brian Forbes, a spokesperson for Mandate, a union for bar, retail and admin workers.
Mandate was involved with a JLC for fast-food workers before it was disbanded in 2011, Forbes says.
“There was a JLC a number of years ago but the [Quick Service Fast Food Alliance] took an injunction, a high court challenge into the constitutionality of the JLC. It was found by the high court that they were unconstitutional so they fell,” he says.
Forbes says that when the JLC was operational for fast-food workers, it worked well and covered over 100,000 people.
After the high court ruling in 2011, joint labour committees were suspended until the next year, when the Oireachtas approved a new Industrial Relations Act, which set out new guidelines for JLCs.
There are now three active JLCs, which cover the contract cleaning, hairdressing and security sectors. The English-language teaching JLC would be the fourth.
Objections to JLC
Marketing English in Ireland (MEI), the largest association for English language schools in Ireland, has objected to the JLC being set up.
In a submission in October to the Labour Court inquiry into whether a JLC for the sector should be set up, MEI said it represents 66 schools and colleges, which employed 3,046 staff during peak season last year.
“MEI does not accept that those parties with whom Mr. King engaged during his investigation, and on whose testimony he relies in making his recommendation for a JLC, are truly representative of employees in the ELT Sector,” MEI stated in its submission objecting to the establishment of the JLC.
MEI have also objected to the time frame in which the JLC was established.
“The speed of this pursuit and failure to engage feels very much like imposition. As indicated in writing to both government Ministers it is imposition of a ‘solution’ without properly or effectively measuring the ‘problem’,” their submission said.
If Brexit goes ahead, Ireland could soon be the only English-speaking country in the EU. “That will make us become an even more attractive destination for international students,” says Gallagher, the English-language teacher.
But MEI is concerned that recent pickets, supported by the union Unite, are forcing members to consider whether they’re going to continue in business, it said in its submission. International agents, who have noticed the turmoil in the sector here, may divert business to other economies, it said.
In the joint statement with Breen announcing the plan to establish the new JLC, Minister for Higher Education Mary Mitchell O’Connor seemed to take a different view, though.
“The relationship between strengthening employment standards for teachers and staff working in this sector and enhancing Ireland’s considerable reputation as a quality learning destination for international students was strongly highlighted in the debates – in both the Seanad and the Dáil …,” she was quoted as saying.
[CORRECTION: This article was updated at 15:00 on 18 December to correct the name of the head of Marketing English in Ireland. Apologies for the error.]