Steve Tainton

Fear and loathing in Asia

Why so many language schools are so deceptive

You haven't really cut your teeth on teaching English in Asia until you've been deceived by an employer. Call it an occupational hazard - it goes with the territory. Most long-term teachers based in Asia have a good horror story or two under their belt about an employer who didn't pay or wouldn't pay or used visas, bonuses, airline tickets, etc. to manipulate he or she into working longer, leaving early, changing locations and so on. Deception can be a two-way street and many employers will have several employee horror stories under their belt, but I'll leave the teacher bashing for another day. So why is this industry so rife with ruse? There are many reasons and I'll try to touch upon some, but first let's take a trip down memory lane. These are some of my favorite quotes over the years.

"The position pays 30,000 baht a month"

(Told to me by a Thai employer who only paid me that much during peak months)

"I guess you will have to go to Laos to make visa"

(The same employer explaining that, contrary to what I had first been told, I would have to do a border run as they could not officially sponsor my visa)

"We have 15 high school students signed up to learn French"

(Said by another Thai employer. I turned up to teach the class and not one student showed)

"We are so sad today is last day for Matt Sensei. What is your address? We will send pictures."

(From a Japanese kindargarden teacher unceremoniously informing me my contract would not be renewed. Notice the lack of notice.)

"I'm sorry to inform you your visa is no longer valid and we cannot employ you until you get a new one"

(This from the infamous Nova Corporation who had previously informed me that my visa was valid. Based on this information I moved back to Japan from Thailand)

"You're being assigned to the Nishi Kasai branch"

(Again from Nova. This commute took over an hour and, fittingly, past six other Nova branches. There were easily a dozen branches within a shorter commute radius.)

"...With this there will be no worry about next month's pay"

(Notorious Nozom Sahashi, former CEO of the failed Nova Corporation, in a fax to staff the month before the company sunk. No one has been paid yet.)

"We will pay you to wait at home and special accounting will be done in November to pay you more quickly"

(From G-Communications, Nova's acquirer, in a meeting with former employees, only a fraction of whom received pay for November. Some people put off filing for unemployment based on the above, erroneous information.)

Is it really that bad? Yes and No. I have highlighted the worst of the worst over an eight year period of time. To do the same for all the honest interactions I have had wouldn't be nearly as amusing, though I could fill pages. But of course we expect honest interaction with our employer and anything less is unacceptable. Why is it that English language schools in Asia (I can't comment on other parts of the world) seem to engage in underhanded employment practices so frequently? I have come up with several answers to that question.

The industry itself is quite young. Most private English language schools haven't been operating for a full decade. If we consider the case of Nova, it opened in 1981 making it one of the pioneers in the industry. I might be stretching the analogy slightly to compare the English education industry to that of textile mills during the industrial revolution. However, nascent industries are often disorganized and susceptible to abuse. There are no real labor unions to speak of that protect the interests of English teachers overseas. As a group of workers English teachers are transient foreigners, the majority of who don't consider teaching overseas to be a career. Nova, again one of the oldest in the industry, has two loosely organized unions whose membership numbers remain a mystery – most likely because there are so few members. If a company of this size and history can't mount an effective union, there is no way it will happen elsewhere. In addition, many employers open their doors without a real plan for employing long-term teachers, yet they often complain about teacher turnover. My Thai employer who was unable to sponsor me for a visa wasn't outright lying to me about her ability to secure one – I was the fist teacher she attempted to sponsor! In other several decades the industry will hopefully mature and improve. That remains a question of time.

Cultural and linguistic misunderstandings are often common. I find that Thais in general often exaggerate in order to have 'big face'. When interviewing with Thai employers I found that they always painted a very rosy picture of the working conditions and salary at first. With subsequent discussions reality started to emerge. This kind of communication style may be normal in Thailand; it is confusing to the Westerner. My dealings with Japanese employers have been fine once something is written in contract form, but the Japanese are well known for avoiding the word 'no' and the word 'maybe' is often used in its place. Can I have weekends off? Maybe. You mean no. I think I have mastered the Japanese communication style but there is a learning curve.

Good old fashion greed is at the root of many deceptions. Open language school, employ staff, enroll students, roll in dough. Nova was the greediest of the bunch employing a tuition system that just begged bankruptcy. Pay us upfront and we'll teach you later...we promise. Young businesses seeking quick profits are loathe to pay for perks that may mean a more loyal workforce but smaller bottom line. I have yet to come across an English school that provides a solid insurance package to its teachers. I'll faint if I do. Most perks offered teachers are really gimmicky incentives to continue working. I'm thinking return airfare that is conditional on doing just one more month. Or re-sign bonuses which are another way of saying that the only way to get you to continue to work this crap job is hand over a lump sum of cash. Consider a business model whereby improved working conditions would lessen teacher turnover by several months at a big corporate school like Nova. It only takes a few years before this several month employment extension starts to really pay dividends for the employer in terms of reduced recruiting and training costs. But most employers don't think long term.

How can teachers, new and old alike, protect themselves from deceptive employers? Asking a lot of questions can help, not because the employer is always likely to answer in a straightforward manner, rather it can reveal their level of knowledge and experience in the industry. Take the visa situation. I asked my Thai employer if they would sponsor a visa. I should of asked them what steps were necessary to sponsor my visa. If they gave a muddled answer (which is what they eventually did) I would have known that they had little experience in visa sponsorship. Ask specific questions that will illustrate the employers knowledge of the industry. Ask how long they have been in business. Ask about teacher turnover and how they think it could be reduced. Don't take verbal promises or agreements seriously and don't make any decisions based on them.

Deception and manipulation are not one in the same. The best method of protection against manipulation is a healthy bank account. Arm-twisting happens when one party is strong enough to twist the other's arm. If you have the money to walk away from a less than pleasant situation, it can make all the difference in the world. Of course the difficulty is not always just financial, visa status is an issue. A good plan B or country B is something to contemplate when making the plunge into the shark-infested waters of English teaching in Asia.

Don't despair. It's not all misery. I have had at least one wonderful employer and several decent employers. English teaching can be stressful and demanding, but there is a seasonal nature to it that can translate into a lot of paid downtime. Visa regulations in some places (Japan for example) are fairly fair and allow teachers to bail on bad bosses. The Olympics are just around the corner and China is on a big English push. Yet another country, hence option when the going gets tough chez vous. Eventually employers will have to wise up and start shooting straight if they want to be competitive. The law of supply and demand is going to tip in favor of the teacher sooner or later. Chin up, campers.

For more deception and manipulation check the blog


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