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Tackling the UK's “freelance” TEFL scandal

More and more, teachers in UK language schools are facing unsteady work, sub-par working conditions, and precarious employment. In other words, the freelance contract.

But here's the thing: it is completely illegal. The language schools that employ us can't put us on sham “self-employed” “freelance contracts” that deprive us of our most basic workplace rights while undermining any semblance of job security.

According to the HMRC, the government agency which determines employment status, it is virtually impossible for language school teachers to be self-employed. Truly self-employed teachers must make their own schedules, decide their own curriculum, choose their own hours, and take money directly from students. Does this sound like EFL teaching to you?

So what can be done?

First, for good measure, take the HMRC test to confirm your employment status. Use the link at the bottom of this page:

http://tools.hmrc.gov.uk/esi/screen/ESI/en-GB/summary?user=guest

A quick warning, however: the wording on this is confusing at best. A further warning: the HMRC site is pretty abysmal. The test only seems to work sporadically. If you're having trouble, don't hesitate to contact the Angry Language Brigade at TEFLsolidarity (a) gmail.com

Then get your fellow teachers to do the same. If you can, collectively bring this to the attention of your manager. It's safer and more powerful than trying to deal with it on your own.

You can expect management will have a response. Most likely they'll tell you that you make more money freelance as you don't pay taxes.

Here's where that argument falls down: no one in the UK pays income tax on their first £10,000 of yearly earnings anyhow. And the slight amount you will end up contributing in tax and national insurance payments (which you'll start paying at around five grand) will be more than made up for in benefits, not the least of which includes holiday pay. Add to this access to the grievance and disciplinary procedures and other benefits like parental leave and it's easy to see that despite whatever the bosses may say, we're far better off being directly employed.

In regards to back taxes, don't let your employer scare you. The HMRC doesn't really care about lowly paid workers who've been misled by shady managers. They're going to look to our tax-evading schools, not us.

The next issue is holiday pay. You are entitled to the holiday time you should have accrued during the time in which you were “freelance”. To put it another way: your holiday pay accrual began on your first day of employment, not the first day your employer puts you on the correct contract.

It's the employer's responsibility to calculate your holiday entitlement (the statutory minimum is 28 days, inclusive of bank holidays, pro-rata). But, just to make sure, for every 10 hours worked, you are entitled to 72.6 minutes paid holiday. (Source: ACAS)

Now, chances are your employer will offer to put you on a directly-employed zero-hours contract or a “rolling” contract that only lasts month-to-month or quarter-to-quarter. Here's where being organised with your co-workers or having the backing of an outside organisation is so important. This is your opportunity to fight for a decent contract. What do you think is a fair weekly guarantee of hours? 15? 20? 25? Do you get paid prep time or paid sick leave? Should you?

One final pitfall to watch out for: many employers will try to claim holiday pay is “rolled up” into your hourly wage. This is illegal. Don't accept it.

As the Angry Language Brigade, we see this as part of a larger issue of wage theft and unpaid work in the language teaching industry. So if you're suffering under a freelance contract, we actively encourage you to get a hold of us. We have members who've addressed this issue at their own schools already and we're happy to offer advice, support, and publicity.

teflsolidarity (a) gmail.com
Facebook
Via private message at libcom.org

However, there are other organisations we work closely with who also have experience supporting language workers fighting for better conditions. Don't be afraid to reach out to them, either.

IWW: https://iww.org.uk/locals
Solidarity Federation: http://www.solfed.org.uk/contact

Posted By

Angry Language ...
Nov 18 2014 17:20

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Comments

Steven.
Nov 19 2014 11:28

Yes, good stuff! For something to qualify as truly self-employed there are a lot of necessary criteria, which as you point out would exclude pretty much all language school teachers. So best of luck with opposing this!

The European Working Time Directive is also really helpful, as you point out. Getting holiday backpay is actually pretty easy, I've got thousands of pounds each for dozens of people on this basis, so if you need any help with the legal side of things drop me a line

Ed
Feb 24 2015 22:30

I was just wondering, does this change at all if you're working through an agency? Like, if there's an agency that finds you different students but it's the agency (not the students) who pays you then what's the deal? Are you still technically freelance or are you employed by the agency? And if so, are you then entitled to holiday pay etc?

mons
May 1 2015 11:45

Just to say, the link to the HMRC employment status link is outdated. I think that this is the working one: http://tools.hmrc.gov.uk/esi/screen/ESI/en-GB/summary?user=guest

Chilli Sauce
May 1 2015 13:38

Thanks Mons!

EDIT: Actually just checked and the seems to be a dead link at the moment as well. However, I think the HMRC site is just sh*t, so one or both them might be back up in a few days...

Angry Language ...
May 13 2015 11:29

HMRC test link should now be working.

If, in the future, it goes down again, please leave us a note and we'll try to fix it (again).

Chilli Sauce
Jun 9 2015 22:14

Looks like that link is f*cked again. Try to sort it out later.