The Great Gig Economy in the Sky

Cool Lone Wolf Fantasy

The ‘Gig Economy’, or as it used to be known ‘making people wait till you throw them some crumbs’ is one of the continuing shames of our profession. Casual work, often without contracts, with no holiday pay, sick pay, parental leave or any of the other benefits full-time workers enjoy is promoted as freelance work, with that kind of cool image of Tribeca loft apartments and commuting between clients on a bicycle with the wind in your hair. Not for us the waiting outside a meeting room, a bag of books, folders and papers hanging off us, eh?
I know that when I started freelance work and serial part-time work it was to do with better rates of pay. It’s always about better rates of pay. Working full time in a language school wasn’t going to pay enough to support a family. Yet two of the biggest providers of work for me for agency work are language school companies. The full-timers making about ¥2500 per hour get holiday pay and better health insurance and hybrid state and company pension. I forego those benefits to pay my own insurance and state pension but get more money.
This might be decried as me just having a moan, having cast myself as a Job-like figure of TEFL in Japan. Not quite. I earn decent money. What I’m complaining about is this:
If the same company can afford to pay ¥4000 per hour for very precarious conditions, or ¥2500 (or less) for less precarious conditions for the same work, isn’t it true that they can probably afford to pay the full-timers more or give freelancers less precarious work? 
This is before anything like qualifications and experience are taken into account, and generally in Japan, they aren’t taken into account very much at all.
“Oh, but with the gig economy you’re free to do whatever you want to do. Freedom is good!” I imagine people saying.
I say it is not. I say that you’re probably just as beholden to work with the gig economy or even more so because of a fear that work could dry up leaving you wondering if you could adjust to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. It’s all about control. Full-time leaves you beholden, freelance leaves you grateful for anything that comes your way. I’m lucky, because now I get none of my work through any of the Uber-for-EFL sites which have the flakiest students who want amazing, bespoke lessons for basically nothing, along with the right to cancel at a minute’s notice (and I am not exaggerating) with no fee.

What are the alternatives?

It may not seem like it, but there is a tiny sliver of light in the unrelenting darkness. There are communities that we make ourselves. Worker-owned cooperatives are the model that I think would be best, but this isn’t easy to sort out when you’re stretched with work already. Just knowing that somebody has your back is enough on some days; on others you need sick cover or a bit of help making some materials that you can’t actually find.
We need less of the rampant individualist and more small-scale collectivist behaviour. Know yourselves, your strengths and weaknesses. We need to work together, help each other and pool our labour to stop large operators being the only option. Otherwise we keep the status quo: TEFL elites writing million-quid coursebooks, junkets to large conferences and people from supposed non-profit organisations who haven’t taught in donkey’s years being paid ten times more than you to tell you about your classroom practice.

9 Replies to “The Great Gig Economy in the Sky”

  1. Always find specific hourly rates interesting. I know they vary hugely across countries, but still. What conditions would it take for a teacher to be paid 4000 yen per hour?

    1. I think it’s actually possible for many chains now. What it would take would be for a company to take the lead and say that cheap teachers with inadequate education is not in learners’ interests. Hell is likely to freeze first.

  2. Speaking not from personal experience… it would be very interesting if an employer stated that freelancing benefits the teacher as you can turn down the hours you don’t want. Then they don’t offer you sufficient hours to pay the bill but instead hire more teachers so that they are “easier to cover” but then everyone has to get work at other places so that they can pay the bills which actually makes them less available and unable to cover…meaning they have to hire more teachers and so the loop continues….clearly not speaking from any personal experience.

    1. Thankfully this isn’t happening in Japan but I worry about the move to a wholly freelance model because it means companies don’t (need to) make social insurance contributions and such. Pair this with the race-to-the-bottom mentality and we have an awful situation.

  3. As a Cambridge graduate with a teaching degree, I have worked for two language schools in Germany for 9 years and 6 years respectively. Both trapped me in an adhesion contract, of which, at the beginning, I was unaware, because of my limited German and understanding of German labour laws. Besides, it was simply pocket money – my then-husband was the main breadwinner. After my divorce, I was looking after myself. I eventually came to realise that I was trapped in fictional employment and left the language schools, having found real work with a client who paid more than twice what I had been paid before. This work however, isn’t guaranteed for ever.

    It seems to me that large companies, moreover, seek to make framework contracts with large language schools, shutting out the small, local, long-term, dedicated trainer who knows his or her students, their environment and their needs, to the detriment of the company’s employees.
    Language schools trap their trainers in a low wage-situation, covering themselves by saying in their trainer contract that the trainer is responsible for paying his own social contributions. He is also told that he is not allowed to enter into any direct work with the customer he accepts language school courses with. The trainer has to accept as many language courses as possible in order to keep his head above water, which means he has no time to seek other work. His conscientiousness means that he cares about his students. Once a course begins, he wants to see it through to the end.

    Having signed a framework contract with the language school, the customer’s employee-students are usually foisted off with short-term trainers, merely passing through while traveling the world, many of whom do not speak the employees’ language, and have no clue about their local situation or needs. They frequently leave in the middle of a course, leaving their students frustrated and none the wiser. Their complaints to both language school and their own company fall on deaf ears. But if a language school pays peanuts, then it will get monkeys. It is the true freelance trainer and the students who suffer.

    ‘We need to work together, help each other and pool our labour to stop large operators being the only option. ‘

    I couldn’t agree more. But how?

    1. Thanks a ton for the very considered comment. The German situation sounds a lot like Japan.

      As for the ‘what is to be done?’, well, as a soon-to-be former member of a co-op, I would advocate that model. It’s not easy, and you would need a number of people to band together with, as well as at least a couple of people with language skills to be able to cope with legal documents and such.

      It’s far from a perfect solution but, to be honest, freelance work has broken me down and I need full-time employment so I am going entirely un-freelance very soon.

      Thanks again!


  4. Thank you so much for your amazingly prompt reply! I can well understand why you are seeking full-time employment, faced with the necessity of putting food on the table.

    I am alone in my situation, and were it not for my husband of two years, who is retired, and who has helped me more than I can say, I couldn’t have coped.
    Have you written about your co-op? I would be interested in reading about its story. I know hardly any other language teachers here in my part of Germany.

  5. Have been doing some more exploratory digging and come across the Teachers as Workers SIG site. Looks as if it’s in its infancy, but definitely a step in the right direction.
    Many thanks,

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