An account from a German language teacher about working in Slovenia focusing on, in particular, the perils of so-called “freelance” contracts.
The Angry Language Brigade is happy to host this account, the first we've posted from a language worker who is not an English teacher. Interestingly, this teacher faced many of the same obstacles as English teachers here in the UK and, in particular, the instability and lack of benefits that comes with schools intentionally misclassifying us as “freelance workers”.
If you are suffering under a crappy freelance contract and have a story to share or, better yet, are looking to fight back collectively with your fellow language workers, don't hesitate to get in contact us here at The Angry Language Brigade via private message or at TEFLSolidarity (at) gmail.com.
A final, short disclaimer from us: we don't agree 100% with all of the politics of this piece. In particular, we are probably a bit more critical of the former Yugoslavia than the author. However, the author's experience resonates with us and, indeed, will resonate language teachers the world over.
I worked in a language school in Slovenia, a small country in the south east of Europe. Slovenia has everything: mountains for hiking, the seaside for swimming, beautiful landscapes, and good food from local farmers. What the country does not have are jobs. Thousands of young, well-educated people leave the country each year to find work, often in German-speaking countries.
That is how I made a living for 1 year: I was teaching German, as a German native. I do not have a specific education in teaching, but a year prior to going to Slovenia, I began organizing my own classes teaching basic German.
I took it seriously because I really wanted the participants to get the opportunity to learn something. And at the same time it allowed me to improve my team building and guiding skills. So I continued with that in Ljubljana.
I began applying to schools in Slovenia. When I got a response, of course none of the schools offered me a proper contract, only teaching hours on a “freelance” basis. At first I got 9,6 Euros per 45 minutes. Later it changed to 6 Euros because the government introduced higher taxes on these sort of contracts. And, just so we don't forget, this amount only covers teaching time - no preparation time, no time for preparing myself or driving to the lessons. Considering the lessons were all over the city, this was no small matter.
The courses took place between 7am and 9.30pm. So imagine: for barely 600 Euros a month (if you're lucky) you are working very hard. And the worst thing is that with this sort of contract the employee does not have rights to paid sick leave or any sort of social security. The employer does not have to guarantee anything. But the employee has to guarantee that he or she is providing good work, prepared, and always on time. The employee is exploited, squeezed and left alone.
One school in particular is a “good” memory for me. They always presented a high image of themselves as international and open because they had native teachers. At the same time, they exploit each one of their teachers.
During my time there I got told a number of times that I was just a beginner and lacked experience. Yet, it wasn't a problem for them to send me to a very important business German course at a well-known company where the participants were quite demanding. My feeling is that the boss goes to specific management seminars where they learn this sort of behaviour, like:
“Tell your employees that they are not good enough! Tell them that they are just beginners and never tell them that they've done anything well! Keep them down, so they will do everything you want without demanding more money or better working conditions”.
Whenever I had a meeting with the boss she arrived late. One time I had a meeting with her and when I arrived, she wasn't there. So another person from the office called her and it turned out that she was sick and had forgotten the meeting. Guess what? The next time I saw her she told me that she had a bad cold from the air conditioning in Dubai, where she had been for a meeting. My guess is that this is another one of those pieces of advice she got during management training:
“Do never show up in time when you have a meeting with one of your employees! Do not show them any respect! Show them that they have to wait for you and not the other way around! And if you do not show up at all and tell something from a place which sounds important to them so they will have even more respect!”
She was always smiling and talked a lot so that you would forgot or would not have enough time for your questions which you'd had in mind. She counted on nobody being able to refuse her anything.
This tactic worked with most of the teachers. You should know that Slovenia is a country where people do not go on to the streets very often. In the last couple of years there were some demonstrations but they were not consistent enough and in the end did not change anything. Mostly people swallow their anger. Unfortunately, you can feel it when you speak to them. Employers are not used to employees demanding anything. They are used to employees taking everything without question.
This was also the case with this particular language school. Just think about this: all the teachers had to sign a disclaimer confirming we would not teach clients from the school and things like that, but it also said that we couldn't say anything about the relation between ourselves as teachers and the school. They wanted to avoid the teachers talking about their salaries with each other, which happened some time ago and it turned out that not everybody was getting the same. I was not at the school at this point, but I could guess this is part of the reason they wrote into the disclaimer - to basically prevent the teachers from discussing anything connected with the school.
For me the conditions were unbearable. I remember thinking that, for the same amount, I could be working in a German supermarket with less stress. Having to prepare lessons each day and then be on time in all different places all across the city – rain, snow, or shine – only added to the stress.
On top of all this, I had like four different meetings with the boss just to discuss what my hourly payment would be. She barely provided me with any numbers. Then one of the admin staff gave me yet another number. So I asked my boss about this and she tried to turn the table so that I would have to justify myself for not being clear, a desperate attempt to turn the attention away from herself. I think such behaviour is always a sign that the person knows what’s going on is just attempting to manipulate you.
Part of the school's plan was that I would start taking teaching lessons at the school. They pushed me into it and wanted me to pay for half the course. (Just think about this: They did not have to pay anything because it was their teachers who were doing it and in their rooms, so at the end they would even earn something from their own teachers teaching the other teachers – a perfect money making machine). In the end, I only had time to attend half the course because I was already taking another course focused teaching young learners. But the school still promised me that I would get a certificate, but only after one more year of teaching for them.
At that point I thought I would stay one more year in Slovenia anyway and would want to continue teaching, so it would be fine. But after digging deeper I found out that the certificate would not actually include that I'd completed the whole course.
I mean, what can I do with half a certificate? What would other schools think about it? The best part was when the boss herself said to me: “Come on, at the end of the day, nobody knows a certificate from our school anyway.”
Another tough story was when they asked me about my schedule and I told them that I was also working for other schools and they said that they didn't want that since they were “investing” in me with letting me pay for “only” half the teaching course. They did not have to pay any money for these courses and yet, at the same time, I had to promise always be free, awaiting their offers for work.
And what if they couldn't offer me enough classes? What if I didn't get enough work and couldn't pay my bills? That was a hard lesson for me to learn: these people see employees as cockroaches to be exploited.
Back to the course: I was still thinking that it would be nice to participate in a course about how to teach German and, so, I decided to pay the whole course. This meant that I would get the certificate immediately and would not have to wait a year to get it (and, even then, only half of it.) The boss was not amused since we had agreed on something else before – that I would take half and pay half and continue for one year working for them – but she realized that I was not planning to stay. So she emailed saying that under these circumstances the school did not want to continue working with me. I know it was on a short notice from my side, but what was in it for me? There were no guarantees for me whatsoever and I had to promise everything.
My thinking now goes a bit like this: if they were so ready to get rid of me, it was because they realized I was a potential troublemaker.
I have to admit that at first after I read that email I was a bit down and felt bad about myself, that it was my fault for not succeeding. In the end, it worked out for the best. Why should I work in such a bad atmosphere of exploitation, with absolutely no benefits, and a minimum payment that barely allowed me to pay the bills?
This is what the bosses want us to think. They want the workers to feel small and worthless and not to connect with each other. This is another thing which is visible in Slovenia. I had a colleague with whom I spent some time talking about the school's conditions and the point was that he was so afraid to lose his teaching hours (“hours” because I cannot say job as it wasn’t a job) that he even denied knowing that I had left the school when the topic was raised by another colleague.
This is how the system works: by separating each one of us from our colleagues. When you are standing alone it is harder to negotiate for better wages or defend our rights as workers.
We have a minority of people owning so much that they will never ever in their lives be able to spend all their wealth and yet the majority of us are unable to pay the bills.
And remember, Slovenia wasn't always like this. During its time as part of Yugoslavia, Slovenia had a strong working class movement with strong unions. The capitalist businesses did their best to destroy the unions and workers' association. Within 10 years this beautiful country went down and there is no recovery in sight. Remember, this is in Europe. The next country could be yours!