[This article was first published in Catalonia Today magazine, November 2020.]
"Precarious:" a word that accurately describes so many jobs under modern hyper-capitalism.
In Catalonia over the last few months this word has become a sword that is hovering over the lives of thousands of people.
For around 300 employees at the International House chain of European language schools, “precarious” has come to be much worse than a mere word .
In their Barcelona branch (which operated for 40 years) at least 120 teachers and support staff have lost their positions.
This is in addition to closure of IH’s other workplaces in Tarragona, Sabadell, Badalona, Terrassa and Mataró. Zaragoza and Palma de Mallorca are also shutting up shop.
Speaking to union representative Duncan Hawthorne, who has worked for IH Barcelona for the last 23 years, he told me he’d expected to stay with them for the rest of his working life. His opinion is that it was a great school but badly run over the years, particularly due to power struggles at the top of the company.
“There’s a lot of anger towards the management and that’s who the staff are trying to hold responsible for the end of the business," he said. "Covid 19 wasn’t a major cause of us closing. It was just the last straw."
Duncan believes that employees feel abandoned by the owners of the company and their recent protests outside their former office on Trafalgar Street in Barcelona are evidence of that. He explained that one of the worst problems for employees is that they are currently in a kind of financial limbo, neither being paid by IH nor able to claim unemployment benefits (which for hundreds of thousands of others, are currently taking up to 3 months to be paid by the Spanish government.)
Duncan also told me that the company is in the hands of a legal administrator but is not yet technically bankrupt.
Another teacher said on social media, "Many of us have worked for IH over the last 5 decades. Staff left without pay or contracts 5 days before the new school year. Staff continued to finish classes yesterday because they care about their students."
Apart from this, it needs to be acknowledged that IH has stated online:
“The closure of schools is due to a sustained deterioration in recent years of International House’s main lines of business, resulting from fundamental changes in the world of language teaching. This downward trajectory worsened, without a doubt, with the crisis caused by COVID-19.”
As someone who has also worked in and for a number of different language “academy” schools for many years, to me, this disaster represents just one of many that are striking this sector.
This is due to the so-called free-market economy failing to provide secure jobs. The (supposedly temporary) closure of Merit School in Barcelona in July is just one other example.
As long as there are native English speakers in Barcelona and elsewhere in Europe giving one-to-one “classes” for a glass of wine or online for under 10 euros an hour — both common enough — there will be continuing exploitation of professional, qualified and experienced teachers.
We are witnessing an ‘Uber-isation’ of teaching and learning in the private sector.
In reality, across our continent there is no law; there is only power. Or at least the power to enforce it. The “convenio” standard that legally exists has been widely abused for years and the pandemic has meant a genuine drop in pay rates. I’ve seen this for myself in trying to find teaching work since August.
So, what do we have in the industry? We have closed houses and open slather.