Who’d be a freelance teacher? (Pt. 1)

The answer to the question “Who’d be a freelance teacher?” will vary greatly according to your geographical location. In France, the answer might be “Quite a lot of people”. Of course there are pitfalls, but for many French workers freelancing makes sense.

imageBut if you’re over the border in Spain, it will probably be: “Only mad people and teachers whose exclusive clients have maids”. Because, sadly, it is notoriously difficult to be autónomo in Spain. They assume you will defraud the system, so they make you pay extra just in case – to be precise, a whopping €260 a month obligatory social security contribution. The result is that many people who want to work for themselves, particularly those in poorly paid professions, would rather defraud the system than become autónomo.

Which leaves our cooperative with something of a conundrum. We are an association of language professionals who, to quote the Catalan of our original statutes, work per compte propi, or “on their own account” – i.e. for themselves. But what does that mean for most language teachers in Barcelona, or no doubt in other places where private schools dominate the language-teaching sector?

In fact, most language teachers here do work per compte propi – because they have to. The contracts offered by local academies rarely represent more than a semblance of a full-time salary, so teachers seek out private students, or quite typically, private students seek out teachers. Meetings are arranged in cafés, photocopies are done sneakily at school, classes are delivered over coffee and cash will be placed in hand. The same goes for translations, proofreading, essay corrections.

There is no doubt that these teachers are working on their own account, but they are not autónomos in the eyes of the state. They are neither paying income tax nor social security and are probably not even aware that their non-payment of IVA (or VAT/sales tax) is actually legitimate (teaching curriculum subjects is currently exempt from IVA). But if you were to confront anyone about it, the reaction would be understandably dismissive. Working in the unofficial economy is – or at least has been up to now – worth the risk for most people, because the mere idea of becoming officially autónomo is enough to put the fear into anyone. The fear of being caught out by the taxman doesn’t even come close – maybe because it never really seems to happen.

Of course, the Law of Cooperatives of Catalonia does not mean this type of freelancing when it says per compte propi, although the wording would make an interesting test-case (not that I’d like to tempt fate). As a result, our position is that although not all of our members have to be officially autónomo, at the very least the executive council does. And as president of that august organ I was the first to submit myself to this daunting and dubious challenge.

But – aside from the fact that I have to – given all that’s been said above, why would I want to?

Answers in the next post, where I’ll describe some of the positive reasons for becoming a freelance teacher – yes, even in Spain! We’ll have a look at some recent and impending changes in Spanish law which make things significantly easier, and explain how SLB can help with the less attractive aspects. Meantime, please let us know what conditions are like for freelancers where you are, and whether becoming a freelance teacher makes any sense.

There are 16 comments so far

  • Neil McMillan
    5 years ago · Reply

    Hi again James, not sure the twitter DM worked so I’ve sent my details using the contact form on your website. All best and hope we can hook up soon.

  • 5 years ago · Reply

    Hi there, I’m James and am a Director of Go English in Barcelona. I started work as an English teacher in Barcelona in 1995. I worked for 3 years at a ‘barrio’ academy before going autonomo at the behest of UIC, a private university, which illegally employed me on a freelance basis when the relationship was really one which Spanish law demands should have been contractual. I am still ‘autonomo’ to this day, although now it is in my capacity as ‘administrador’ of Go English. It is a peculiarity in Spain that all business owners must, in fact, be freelance. I’ve been paying my social security contributions since 1998 as a freelance worker, but if ever I become ‘unemplyed’ I have absolutely no right to any benefit whatsover. Isn’t that weird? It’s an appaling system, but we have to live with it, and at Go English we can only employ people who are formally registered as ‘autonomo’ in order to comply fully with our legal requirements. We do our best to keep rates of pay high enough for our freelance workers to earn a living wage. The future of language teaching is challenging as we see our sector changing with the impact of technology. The presents both challenges and oportunities to freelance teachers, and there’s a debate there to be had. Great to see CSLB promoting discussion of these issues.

    • Neil McMillan
      5 years ago · Reply

      Thanks a lot for your comments James. Yes, UIC, the only place I’ve worked where they censored my material before the lesson!

      If you have a look at pt. 2 of this post I try to address the issue of the paro, which is now accessible to autónomos as a cessation of activity benefit.

      One question though – if academies are obliged to offer contracts where applicable, why are you at Go English obliged to take on autónomos only?

      • 5 years ago · Reply

        HI Neil, we are not obliged only to work with autónomos. We have about 25 contracted staff. We also employ some staff on ‘obra y servicio’ contracts when projects are suitable for that. However, the nature of the projects we tend to win render the business model more suitable to contracting freelance staff. Since we began in 2001 (and we were orginally 2 freelance teachers who set up a company with one of its major objectives to improve the conditions for the teachers) we have always tried to keep rates of pay as high as possible for the freelance staff. We pay a minimum of 25 € per hour gross. I wish it were more. In the sector we have seen a squeeze on the hourly rate we can attain on contracts. There has been a price war, as too many providers, many of whom pay pitiful rates to their staff, go in incredibly low on price to maintain market share. Our strategy is to maintain quality and defend our price structure on that basis, but inevitably we have taken a few hits and margins have suffered as a result. We have to comply with strict legal requirements to ensure our freelance staff are registered with Hacienda and Social Security as autónomos.

        As you know, the government chose to increase the amount of IRPF deducted at source, which effectively meant teachers had to take an extra 6% hit on take home salary. In theory one can get that money back on Dec de la Renta at the end of the tax year, but for teachers, that’s jam tomorrow, when what they need is cash to get through the month.

        With Blended Learning, there is an opportunity to optimise the working day for teachers. We have our contact hours and often have downtime inbetween. Clasically we have the breakfast run, the lunchtime run and possibly some classes in the evening. It’s a long day. If you have online tutoring (paid) to do in between the face to face hours, one can be earning in the downtown. I hope this model can end up ensuring that teachers can get a better balance with their working hours and end up with more money at the end of the month. Technology provides opportunity for teachers, both to optimise their teaching in classes and to optimise their working day. It also allows for freelance teachers to collaborate and organise themselves by sharing knowledge and experience. This blog is a perfect example of that.

        At Go English we are currently exploring ways to encourage a sense of community amongst our freelance staff around Spain, enabling teachers to share experiences and to feedback to us as to how best we can support them in the classroom, in professional devlopment and with welfare issues. We haven’t cracked the nut yet, but we’re working on it. That’s why I’m engaging with you here as we need to know what teachers feel would best help them to carry out thier duties and to enhance their working lives. We’ve noticed a lot of teachers have simply abandoned Spain to seek opportunities in other countries as the economy has nose-dived and standards of living have fallen. That is of great concern to us, as the quality of our service depends on the quality of our teachers. Teachers remain central to our strategy and service, be it in 100% face to face courses or in Blended ones. All comments welcome!

        • Neil McMillan
          5 years ago · Reply

          Hi James, it’s refreshing to hear that not every school director has the same attitude towards teacher pay. I’ve sent you a DM on twitter to try to arrange a meeting – it would be great to talk further about these issues and possible collaboration.

          On IRPF, looks like we’re going to see a reduction next year to 20% and the following to 19%, which I’ve noted in Part 2 of this post. Crucially though, and I’m about to add this info to the post, new autónomos should only be paying 9% for the first three years – another measure designed to allow new freelancers to build up business before they take the full fiscal hit.

  • daviesbusinessenglish
    5 years ago · Reply

    I live and work on Mallorca – obviously the same conditions as in Barcelona but I was also self employed in England some years ago and it was the same there too really. The difference was the level of Social Security payment – much lower than the (punitive) payments here – I pay 280€ per month.

  • Beatriz Siliceo
    5 years ago · Reply

    It is difficut to make ends meet if you are an independent / free lance English teacher. It is good to combine both. To have a steady job, that you know you´ll have a fixed income and also have some private classes on your own. I have found that Language Institutes charges quite a bit of money and sometimes the results are not really productive on the client´s behalf.

    • Neil McMillan
      5 years ago · Reply

      Thanks Beatriz. Yes, this is the typical situation of most teachers in Barcelona. However, the private classes you mention are usually being done illegally. I’m not judging, as effectively teachers are forced into this situation. But it’s possible in some cases to be a freelancer and still work for a school, billing them as you would any other client. In that way you can combine the regular school hours with the one-to-one classes and stay on the right side of the law at the same time.

  • 5 years ago · Reply

    I’ve had the same problems in the U.S. At times I’ve tried to make ends meet by freelancing, other times I’ve found it easier to teach in conjunction with another non-educational job. After having taught in La Rioja, Spain and in NYC, I’ve realized that many of the issues you stated above exist across the Atlantic.

    For me it’s really about finding enough students. I’m currently working on building a centralized location for freelance teachers to find students for in person classes outside of the standard classroom. It’ll track your earnings for tax purposes and give a bit of advocacy for these groups across the globe. Really appreciate you writing about this; it touches home!

    Best regards,
    Shana
    http://www.chatterplot.com

    • Neil McMillan
      5 years ago · Reply

      Hi Shana and many thanks for the comments. Interesting that there are a lot of recurring problems in various countries. I think part of the reason is that there’s an assumption (by the state) that freelancers are all rabid entrepreneurs like Jobs or Gates, and therefore the normal rules don’t need to apply. However, most freelance teachers I know are not empire-builders nor want to be.

      Best of luck with chatterplot, it looks similar to one of the aspects (agency) of the website we are currently designing. Dare I suggest that you cooperativise your operation and give your freelancers another potential source of income?

      • 5 years ago · Reply

        Hi Neil, I couldn’t agree more with your statement about assumptions and freelancing. To be completely honest, before trying it out/needing to teach classes myself (5 years ago), my idea of freelancing was equally as warped as the laws and regulations. The term ‘freelancing’ runs the risk of carrying a daring, creative, entrepreneurial connotation which also, just as you said, doesn’t portray the freelance teachers I know!

        Thank you for your well wishes with Chatterplot. It’s great to hear SLB might be designing something out that’s similar. Support and advocacy for ‘out of classroom’ language learning is really needed everywhere. As per your suggestion, we’re looking into building partnerships with like-minded organizations, some which could potentially assist in providing another source of income for teachers, but for right now the students who will be paying the teacher directly.

        Will SLB be expanding to other areas? By the name I’m guessing not, but the tax advice you provide (even in the 2nd posting) seems really invaluable to all Spanish autonomas. -Shana

  • 5 years ago · Reply

    Looking forward to part 2. I have already worked as a freelance teacher in France. I was ‘déclarée’ and paid taxes. But the disadvantage was that, having the status of ‘profession libéral’, I was not entitled to receive any sickness benefit (indemnités journalières) in the event of being ill. A solution to this problem is to take out private health insurance (prévoyance in France) but this wasn’t so straightforward in my particular case.

    Secondly, I had to leave the national social security system (CPAM) and join a different system (an RSA) which reimbursed my health costs at a lower percentage and which I found less efficient. It was more difficult to contact them – their telephone service was abysmal.

    Thirdly, being self-employed, I was unable to make unemployment social contributions, so if my (very small) business failed I would not have been eligible to claim unemployment benefit. I thought the risk was too high at the time, so I started to work for a teaching agency.

    Seriously, I have a folder thick with paperwork from all the administration involved in being self-employed.

    But now I’m thinking about becoming self-employed again after getting some more qualifications…

    I’d be interested to hear other people’s views.

    • Neil McMillan
      5 years ago · Reply

      Many thanks for this, you mention some issues which also apply in Spain – mainly relating to sickness and unemployment benefit. In Spain, a freelancer cannot receive unemployment benefit because they are not “employed” by anyone in the first place. However, there are now some ways around this that I’ll cover in the next post.

      I think that here the social security system is the same for autónomos and contracted workers, but there are certainly more restrictions about what you can get back from the system if you’re freelance.

      As you’re contemplating it again, maybe you could let us know some of the advantages of doing this in France?

      Thanks again and keep in touch!

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