At the cooperative SLB we regularly receive messages from disgruntled TEFL teachers who have been at the wrong end of some shabby treatment by private academies or agencies. Whether they’ve not been paid for several months, or have found themselves suddenly out of a job without warning, these stories are a sorry sign that the working conditions in our sector have not improved much in recent years, with unscrupulous employers taking advantage of the economic crisis, or the lack of regulation in the sector, to treat their most valuable resource – yes, the TEFL teacher him/herself – like so much disposable labour. We believe that many of these problems can be addressed in advance by knowing what the workers’ rights for TEFL teachers in Catalonia and Spain are, and acting upon them before any contract is signed. Without doing this, teachers can be left facing hefty lawyers’ bills in their efforts to chase down unpaid salary or redress other wrongs they have suffered.
Workers’ Rights for TEFL Teachers in Catalonia and Spain
What follows is mainly a guide for teachers contracted (or about to be contracted) to private academies based in Catalonia, but reference will be made to the wider Spanish situation as well as to the situation of freelancers or autónomos. The information provided is accurate to the best of our knowledge at the time of writing.
1. Join a Union
Yes, and do it before you run into any problems. Although officially the unions we spoke to will offer assistance from the moment you join, longevity carries with it extra benefits – some services will have to be paid for if you need to access them immediately. However, unions remain the most valuable source of information and help our sector has to offer.
The main unions (sindicatos) in Catalonia and Spain are the Comisiones Obreras (CCOO), the Unión General de Trabajadores (UGT) and the anarchist Confederación Nacional de Trabajo (CNT). Most teachers we know in Barcelona who bother with unions are affiliated to the CCOO but you are free to choose whichever union you wish (the same applies to autónomos). The thing to ask for is the department concerned with private, unregulated education – enseñanza privada no reglada or, in Catalan, ensenyament privada no reglada. These sections of the unions are actively involved in negotiating the sector-wide convenios (see below) and are therefore the most clued-up when it comes to knowing the workers’ rights of TEFL teachers in Spain and Catalonia.
2. Know and understand your contract before signing
It seems like such an obvious point, but unfortunately the high levels of “innocence” of many teachers starting jobs in our sector for the first time merits stating the obvious. One key factor here is the low level of Spanish or Catalan that many new teachers have. If you don’t understand the contract, ask to take it away so that someone you trust can explain it to you (at SLB we offer a translation service for this – just get in touch and we’ll take a look).
Contracts are typically part time (de tiempo parcial) rather than full time (tiempo completo) and can be temporary (temporales) or permanent (indefinidos or fijos). There are a number of ways in which a temporary contract can be converted into a permanent one – for example, if the teacher has worked two or more such contracts, with a minimum of 24 months’ work, the contract should become permanent.
It’s important to note that contracts are by default permanent – the temporary one is a modified version of this. If you fulfil the conditions for a full-time contract or the contract has been badly written by the company, it automatically defaults to a permanent contract without a new contract needing to be issued or signed.
There is usually a trial period of 3 months for full-timers, and 6 months for part-timers.
A massive sticking point for TEFL teachers is the grey area concerning the number of weekly hours that constitute a full-time contract. Basically, by not counting the hours of preparation, many academies wriggle out of offering full-time contracts. For more on this, see the section on convenios below.
One type of contract which is often used in the private academy sector is the fijo discontinuo or the “fixed discontinuous” contract. This means that you are effectively laid off for the periods in which there are no classes (August, for example) on the proviso that you are re-hired when classes restart. During the fallow periods you are entitled to claim unemployment benefit (el paro), but when you are working you have the same rights as teachers working under other contracts.
Autónomos working with private academies or other companies should produce a presupuesto or budget which details the number of hours to be worked, times and dates, rates, and other terms and conditions they have agreed with the client. Make sure the client has signed and stamped this document before work begins, because it will be the only evidence of your agreement in case of a dispute. SLB offers a template for this to its members; see here for details of how to become a member of our cooperative.
3. Be aware of your tax obligations
Many a TEFL teacher has been caught out by this and academies do not assume any responsibility when it comes to letting you know, so beware! Basically, many academies will only deduct 2% income tax (IRPF) from you when you begin teaching. Seems low? Well, yes, it is low, but you can get away with it as long as you don’t need to produce a tax return (declaración de la renta) – which, if your yearly salary is less than 22,000€, and this comes from only one employer, you don’t need to do. In the bold text lies the obvious catch – many of us need to work for more than one employer due to the scarcity of full-time contracts. As soon as this is the case, you are obliged to do your tax return, and if you have been paying only 2% IRPF in one or both places, be prepared for a nasty shock – it’s more than likely that you will owe the taxman big time!
So save yourself the pain and ask your employer from the beginning how much IRPF they’ll be deducting. If it’s 2% or a similarly low figure, ask it to be put up to around 12%. In our experience, this should be more than sufficient to cover things, so that when you do the tax return, it’s likely that you will be owed money back. Which is a significantly nicer surprise than the alternative.
4. Know your convenio
A convenio is a collective agreement which regulates workers’ rights and responsibilities in any given sector, particularly where these differ from rights established by law (due to the exceptional circumstances found in different sectors). In theory this should make everything clear for everyone – but in the sector we’re dealing with here, there is more than one convenio and you’ll need to find out which one your employer is following.
Why is there more than one? Well, it’s complicated, but our understanding is that the latest convenio which applies to Catalonia has not been formally accepted, but some institutions have adopted it, while the previous (Spain-wide) one remains the subject of a legal enquiry, and is out of date – but schools are still allowed to use it.
The “out-of-date” convenio is the Spain-wide VII convenio colectivo de enseñanza y formación no reglada (the 7th collective agreement for unregulated teaching and training), while the more recent, and more favourable Catalan one is (in Catalan) the I conveni col·lectiu autonòmic d’ensenyament i formació no reglada de Catalunya (the 1st regional collective agreement for unregulated teaching and training in Catalonia). This document (in Catalan) outlines some of the key differences between the two.
So, simply put, find out which one applies and make yourself familiar. Some of the key points from the Catalan version include:
- A definition of what counts as full-time for a teacher – yearly teaching hours totaling a maximum of 1300, of which no more than 1230 can be contact hours and the rest preparation. Based on a year with a maximum of 215 working days, this means roughly 6 hours teaching time per working day or an average of around 30 contact hours per week. As we mentioned above, such a number of hours can be hard to come by (and arguably are difficult to work effectively). And then there’s the grey area of preparation hours, which seem to be horrendously undervalued by the convenio – basically, for every hour taught, it allows for 3 mins and 40 seconds of prep time!! This doesn’t allow teachers doing 24 contact hours a week to claim a full-time contract, even though we all know that 24 contact hours are about the limit anyone can do and stay sane/remain effective – when we add adequate preparation, marking etc. This is something which remains to be fought over, in our opinion.
- Salaries – for a full-time teacher this is set at a minimum of 16,968€, which, given we tend to understand things in terms of hourly rates, and based on the point above, works out as an minimum hourly rate of just over 13€ – excluding the negligible prep time. Not much to get excited about there, then.
- Rights in terms of sickness leave, marriage, births etc. are set out. Did you know, for example, that you get a paid day off if you move house? Or if your brother or sister gets married? In the case of sickness, be aware that you won’t be entitled to any paid leave without a doctor’s note, and after two days of sickness, you’ll need the baja or official doctor’s orders excusing you from work.
- Finally, the convenio highlights your right to form a union committee, or comité de empresa, if you work in a company with 50 or more employees (who do not all need to be a member of the union). This type of organisation is essential if collective pay bargaining is to be instituted – one of the key ways by which we believe that teachers can improve their conditions. The person chosen to be the representative of the committee enjoys certain privileges, e.g. the right to be given time off for meetings, negotiations etc. S/he is also very difficult to get rid of from the company’s point of view.
5. What to do if your contract is terminated
If this has happened naturally, e.g. at the end of a contracted period or by mutual agreement, make sure you receive your finiquito and have your employer explain the calculation to you. The finiquito is the money owed to you for holidays or longevity, a sum which will have accumulated over the length of your contract but which may not have been paid to you by the time the contract ends.
If you have been fired or feel that your contract has been terminated unfairly, we stress again that the best recourse is to make an appointment with your union. If you don’t have one, you can still seek advice from one and ask what they could do if you joined. Alternatively, you will need to hire an employment lawyer. At SLB, and this is mainly for Barcelona-based teachers, we recommend the cooperative Col·lectiu Ronda – an initial consult with them costs around 60€.
6. What else you can do
At SLB we are always willing to give advice and can offer services of interpretation for teachers who lack the language skills to deal with bosses, unions and lawyers. And as a member of SLB (this is mainly for freelancers) you would have access to more detailed legal advice as well as guidance documents and pro-formas, in addition to our other services. Get in touch with us if you have a question or submit your application here if you would like to join.
If you want to take part in the campaign for improved rights, pay and conditions for English teachers around the world, we recommend you get involved with TAWSIG – the Teachers as Workers group. Follow them on twitter too.
Schools or companies that you feel have mistreated you can be blacklisted anonymously on this page. If you do use this, we urge that you avoid the (understandable) “spite and bile” approach adopted by many posters and provide as much evidence as you can.
Useful information and advice on these issues (although you do sometimes need to tread carefully) can be found on the Barcelona TEFL Teachers’ Association Facebook page.