Marc JonesThe Grammar of Precarious Work

Marc Jones


Countable and Uncountable Nouns 

Countable and uncountable nouns are the staples of English language teaching (ELT), as are “much” and “many.” For teachers, however, “not much/many” and “none” might in some cases be more apt.  

How many teachers have a permanent contract with guaranteed hours? 

How many teachers can claim sick pay? How many of your sick days are separate from paid holidays? 

How many of your colleagues have worked for the same organisation for more than ten years? 

How many of us have a pension and how much is it likely to be worth?

There has recently been a lot of talk about social justice in ELT. We stand up for marginalised groups and we champion the underdog, at least we usually do. However, when we ourselves are the underdogs, I feel there is a tendency for us to beg and then play dead. The only problem here is that it is much easier for employers to play dead by closing down schools and leaving teachers without wages. How many of us have precarious contracts? How many of us know the state of our employers’ accounts?

School chains have gone bankrupt in Japan before, causing teachers to be without wages for months at a time. It happened with alarming frequency in Ireland last year, resulting in Christmas time GoFundMe appeals to cover teachers’ incomes, made by the students. The fact that teachers’ working conditions are students’ learning conditions doesn’t seem to matter to fly-by-night language school operators. Probably the only actual benefit of the terrible gig-economy and zero-hour contracts we put up with is that it forces us to spread our risks across several employers. How many hours are you guaranteed to be paid for each week? How many hours of work do you actually do?  

Conditionals and Probability 

How long do you think you could survive if you lost your job, or one of your jobs? How long would you have to wait to be paid if your least reliable employer didn’t pay you on time? Some of us would certainly have problems within a couple of weeks. It would definitely be a problem for those with families to support.  

Who would more likely face hardship if your employer closed down, you or your students? It’s more likely to be you, with students out by a smaller amount of money per person. Long courses, particularly young learner courses, might be paid by credit card, which can be reimbursed by the card company. Who reimburses the itinerant teachers? How likely are teachers to know the legal avenues available to them? 

If teachers take legal action, is it likely to bring any benefit to them? It might be the case that any victory is strictly pyrrhic. Employers may have to pay back lost earnings for a set period. How likely is it that teachers with public social media accounts can avoid being de-facto blacklisted? Any search of your name that is connected with legal action against a past employer is unlikely to enamour human resources departments or hiring committees toward you.  

Reasons and Causes  

If unions have power in your context, it could be a good idea to join one because you can get legal information. Some teacher organisations shy away from labour issues so they can attract sponsorship from large companies. They claim to advocate for teachers but they cannot do this consistently unless they side against those who provide a lot of funding. In order to reduce this bias, is it better to work in smaller organisations? 

Marc Jones is a teacher at universities in Japan and, for the first year in a long time, isn’t employed precariously.

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Marc Jones

Marc Jones was born and raised in and around Sunderland, England. He has worked in call centres, a library, then a Hawaiian bar in the Tokyo suburbs but finally settled on working in schools, colleges and businesses. He tweets at @11thhourspecial.

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  1. I work for a relatively small organisaition, and have the “priviledge” (it should really be the norm!) of being one of the few teachers with a permanent, full-time contract, paid holiday and sick leave, and opportunities for training and professional growth.
    The result is that the school struggles to compete with the ones who underpay teachers but offer “native speakers” at all costs.
    I’m starting to believe it is the whole system that needs re-thinking.

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