Divided unions, continuing precarity for Spain’s teachers

This piece was commissioned by the Teachers as Workers collective and is published simultaneously on their blog.

We will not accept botch jobs or blackmail. In keeping with our principles, we are not going to sign an agreement that doesn’t even manage to paint over the deficiencies of the sector.

Comisiones Obreras, Education section, 25/5/18

The deficiencies of our sector, the unregulated private education sector in Spain and Catalonia, are glaring. They may or may not be representative of problems in ELT elsewhere, but a common thread in our conversations with teachers working in private schools here and abroad is a feeling of gross undervaluation, a lack of recognition or reward for our efforts. But it is this very undervaluation, we feel, that drives the sector here, and which permits the current deadlock in the union-led drive to improve the situation.

In our view, schools, institutions, unions and yes, teachers themselves, are all complicit in maintaining this substandardisation. Teachers need to wake up to that, inform themselves and organise. Ignorance of basic rights can no longer be an excuse. We’re teetering on the baseline here, a baseline that at times feels more like a tightrope stretched across a yawning chasm.

In Catalonia and Barcelona in particular, two shaky pegs fix this tightrope in place, two determining factors in the current crisis:

  • the acceptance of minimum qualifications, i.e. “CELTA or equivalent”, by schools
  • the popularity of Barcelona as a training centre for “CELTA or equivalent”

 

What this leads to is a high volume of young and inexperienced teachers dancing gaily onto the rope each year. These teachers may not see ELT as a career move, or quickly begin to see that it’s not, so many aren’t around for long. Even those that stay longer tend to be younger and tend not to organise or agitate. An individualistic ideology and a fear of rocking the boat, and perhaps losing precious hours, seem to prevail. Meanwhile, the complaints of those being shafted by their employers clog up the social media threads. Is it a sign of our times that a teacher will quicker turn to Facebook for advice than they will their local union? Is this merely a language issue, the fault of the unions for failing to connect with foreign workers, or does it run deeper?

The unions, at least, are attempting now to address the question of the convenios, or sector-wide agreements between the unions and the business sector to guarantee minimum pay and conditions for certain jobs. The problem for workers in private education in recent years has been the stagnation of the process by which convenios are supposed to be reviewed and upgraded over time.

At both the Spanish and Catalan levels, though, progress has become blocked, and it seems that the sector will continue in a situation of precarity and division for the time being. Read on to find out why.

The Spanish situation

In Spain, the biggest union in the sector, Comisiones Obreras (CCOO), have refused to sign off on a new convenio. With acceptance, however, from the unions UGT, USO and FSIE, we presume that the new agreement will apply at least in centres affiliated to those unions.

CCOO have roundly condemned the pay freeze that the new Spanish convenio supposes. It potentially extends to 6 years (2014-2020) the period in which minimum salaries will not be raised. Meanwhile, during the crisis period of 2009-2016, student intake in the sector rose by 7.41%. In this light, it seems incredible that any union would accept such a freeze.

The new agreement also fails to:

  • change the definition of a working day
  • change the definition of contact/non-contact hours
  • improve paid leave
  • regulate holidays
  • effect changes in workers’ health, union rights or gender equality

 

CCOO have commented that they are studying the possibility of legal action, given that in their view the convenio violates the Spanish Workers’ Statute (Estatut de trabajadores).

Meanwhile, in Catalonia …

Here the situation (described by SLB last year in our interview with CCOO) is that private education centres are already governed by one of two distinct convenios, and this will continue for the foreseeable future. In April, members of CCOO voted to reject proposals for a new conveni (we’ll use the Catalan to distinguish it from the national convenio above). The proposal aimed to put an end to the current division, but until all parties can return to the table, schools in Catalonia affiliated to CCOO will continue to use the VIII conveni, while those with UGT will stay with the I conveni “of limited efficacy”.

The proposal rejected by CCOO, the biggest union in the sector in Catalonia, is as follows. The second column shows the conditions guaranteed by the current VIII conveni, while the final column shows the rejected proposal. (Source: CCOO)

Basic salaryVIII collective conveniDraft conveni 2018
teaching staff1125.07€
1251€
expertN/A
1667€
librarians / translatorsN/A
1251€
administrative919.93€1026€
administrative auxiliary823.71€
924€
head of general services1061.81€1183€
skilled worker966.92€1026€

So although the new conveni offers an 11% pay rise for teachers on the minimum rate, that rate has remained frozen since 2008. For the period 2008-2018, the consumer price index (IPC in Spanish) shows a 14.5% rise for Catalonia (the highest in Spain), while the cost of rent in Barcelona has shot up by 13.7% this year alone.

The real sting, however, comes when we consider the hours. The next table shows annual hours, while the following one breaks it down to weekly:

Annual hours (full-time)VIII collective conveniDraft conveni 2018
teaching staff1315 hrs (1230 contact)1300 hrs (1230 contact)
technical staff
N/A1620
administrative staff

1546 hrs1530
general services staff1546 hrs1530
Weekly hours (full-time)VIII collective conveniDraft conveni 2018
teaching staff32 hrs (30 contact)31 hrs (30 contact)
technical staff
N/A38 hrs
administrative staff

38 hrs36 hrs
general services staff38 hrs36 hrs

If we interpret non-contact hours as prep and marking time, all you’d be officially paid for under the proposal would be 1 hour per 30 hours taught – a truly staggering 2 minutes per hour of class. It makes the current conveni seem humane, although it really isn’t much better. Meanwhile, the minimum hourly rate boils down to 12.20€ in the draft conveni, up from 10.98€ under current conditions. These figures are based on contact hours, given that employers often claim that prep time is paid via the hourly rate.

CCOO also objected to increased obligation to do extra hours under the new proposal:

Annual additional hours (full-time)VIII collective conveniDraft conveni 2018
teaching staffup to 120 hrs by mutual agreementup to 200 hrs*
technical staff
N/Aup to 90 hrs*
administrative staff
N/Aup to 180 hrs*
general services staffNAup to 180 hrs*

*These hours are obligatory if required, with teachers paid 10% extra on the hourly rate.

Frankly this is a terrible condition. As if 30 hours teaching per week (plus real preparation time) weren’t enough, you’d be obliged to take on whatever they threw at you, e.g. cover for teachers on sick leave because the workload is already too much. Up to 200 hours a year.

Finally, the new proposal drastically reduces paid holidays:

HolidaysVIII collective conveniDraft conveni 2018
Paid holidays21 days*13 days from 2018
14 days from 2020

This proposal only goes to show the arrogance of the position of the patronals, or representatives of the private sector. They know they have the upper hand in these negotiations and are using them to lower the baseline even further.

Some conclusions

In an undated statement on their website, the UGT in Catalonia accuse both CCOO and the patronals of “incompetence and intransigence”, and describe CCOO’s VIII conveni as “dead since 2008”. In defence of their own “limited efficacy” conveni, while admitting that it isn’t perfect, they say that “the economic situation of the country didn’t allow for overly satisfactory agreements, but we preferred to make pacts which gave us a point of reference while giving an impulse to the sector”. They close by asking:

Is it preferable to have no conveni and for centres to apply whatever conditions they feel like, without respecting anything, and leaving the workers, who often aren’t aware of their own rights, defenceless?

Unión General de Trabajadores, Education section

Clearly not. Given those words, however, and in spite of the apparent animosity, we would hope UGT will now join forces with CCOO in forcing a much improved offer from the patronals.

UGT do hit the nail on the head with the comment about the lack of awareness of workers – i.e. teachers – in the sector. In the teacher-run social media groups, the ignorance is particularly palpable. There are countless stories of unpaid wages, unpaid finiquito or holiday pay, cancelled classes, tax issues, dodgy contracts: all bad stuff. But what’s even worse is the mess of contradictory advice that gets offered. We really don’t, by and large, know what we are talking about. So this is another reason the patronals value our labour in such derisory terms. Even when employers break those very minimum conveni(o) and workers’ statute conditions, we don’t do very much about it. Add this to the training/minimum entry issues described above, and we’ve got a double whammy of ignorance — of our jobs, and of our status as workers. And the old tightrope starts to wobble quite alarmingly.

Granted, the post-Brexit future is uncertain and the pattern may indeed change. But as things stand, it’s going to take a major change of mindset to convert this constituency of itinerant workers into union members in sufficient numbers as to lend real ballast to the negotiation process. It is possible, as has been proved in Ireland with the Unite union and campaigners from the ELT Advocacy Ireland group, but it’s going to require some effort both by the unions, and, crucially, a motivated group of contracted teachers willing to agitate for change and persuade their peers to join them. To form work committees, to demand rights, work to rule — imagine if we really did just dedicate 2 minutes per hour to prep — and strike if necessary. And further: to demand the minimum level of professional training that teachers of any other curriculum subject are required to have, while insisting that such training also educates teachers as workers, that it informs them of their rights and responsibilities in the local context.

Maybe staring these figures in the face might provoke some reaction. It’s true that some schools do pay above the conveni(o) rates because they realise that good teachers are the bedrock of their business, and that a less insulting salary might be one way of enticing them. Universities also set their own, higher entry standards and pay accordingly. But the poverty of the conveni(o)s is the standards they set. They allow schools to continue ignoring the issue of prep and marking time, to be inflexible over holidays, and, most crucially, to keep refusing full-time status to teachers because of the high number of contact hours included in the definition.

Enough is surely enough. But as long as the bar (“CELTA or equivalent”) for access to the profession remains so low, EFL teachers are going to continue to be undervalued. Urgent action is needed to professionalise as well as organise the sector. We need to show Trinity and Cambridge how central their qualifications are to precarity in the industry, while education departments should be lobbied to intervene, at least at this minimal level, in demanding higher in the private sector. With a period of grace for current teachers to upgrade their qualifications, this could be a catalyst for real change.

The battle is not just around the negotiation table for the conveni(o)s. It’s also the battle to redefine what we are and what we do, and to do so as a group that might one day wake up to its own power. To paraphrase the poet, to be ourselves — and make that worth being.


Featured image: Tightrope 1 by Tom A La Rue on Flickr. Licence: CC BY-SA 2.0


SLB is a cooperative of freelance language teachers, translators and materials developers based in Catalonia, Spain. We became a collective of freelancers because we could not make a decent living under the conditions described above. We continue to do some contracted work in schools and academies. One of our goals is to keep both local contract teachers and freelancers as informed as we can about their legal rights and fiscal responsibilities. Please see www.slb.coop for more info about us and how to join; we are also open to international membership.

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