Ro Ech Ech @ vntimes.info
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In this file photo, used for illustrative purpose only, a Vietnamese teacher teaches English at a foreign language center in Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Dao Ngoc Thach
There’s a shortage of good jobs for recent graduates in the West. I know; I am one. The only financially viable post-university options included either returning to my parents’ house, returning to non-graduate employment or interning for free while sleeping on sofas.
In such an unforgiving employment market, the option of teaching English in Vietnam seems like a dream – a chance to live in a novel environment, get paid high wages and, perhaps most importantly, drink cheaper beer.
Vietnam’s rocketing economy and optimistic government targets about wanting every child to have some access to a native English teacher by 2020 has resulted in an increasing demand for native English speakers.
Such high demand for native speakers has shaped the utopian nature of the living and working conditions being advertised to prospective Western teachers. A quick internet search returns loads of promises for ample pay sweetened with teacher testimonials about the beauty of the local culture, the friendly people, and endless pictures of beaches and beers.
It’s no wonder that loads of Westerners move to Vietnam.
Yet for all the benefits these companies advertise and provide for Western employees, the employment of locals is characterized by exploitation, scapegoating and subcontracting. Here, I will focus on the practices employed at two specific English language centres: Melbourne-Massachusetts Hello 123 and Shiny Happy English Smiles.**
The most obvious difference between treatment of local and Western staff is the gulf in pay. Western teachers are offered full-time contracts which, for about 20 hours teaching a week, will get them anywhere from US$1000-2000. In Vietnam, where living costs and average wages are low, this puts us in the top tier of the nation’s earners. Teachers at Melbourne-Massachusetts Hello 123 are also provided with holiday pay, a healthy relocation bonus and health insurance.
Our rights are also actively protected and advocated for. One of the first things Ted Osius, the new US ambassador to Vietnam, did after he arrived was advise President Truong Tan Sang to promote and protect American English teachers here. This stands in stark contrast to the employment conditions offered to local staff.
The Vietnamese administrative staff of Melbourne-Massachusetts Hello 123 and Shiny Happy English Smiles do huge amounts of work to make sure that the companies don’t fold in. Their wide-ranging remit includes advertising for new teachers and new customers, managing teaching schedules and finances, making sure that teachers have all the equipment they need, dealing with complaints, and inducting students and new staff – all while providing invaluable support to teachers as they experience the teething problems associated with working in a foreign country. Administrative staff earn roughly US$250-300 per month.
Teaching assistants don’t even get full time contracts. They are all bilingual, with a high level of English proficiency, and provide a bridge between the students and English teachers – most of whom do not speak Vietnamese. Teaching assistants set and mark homework, complete attendance registers, note what’s been studied, and deal with the complaints of demanding parents. Native English teachers, on the other hand, prepare a few games and then go and play them with the students.
As teaching assistants are on casual contracts, Melbourne-Massachusetts Hello 123 and Shiny Happy English Smiles do not have to pay them in line with a fixed monthly minimum wage (Vietnam sets local minimum wages at a monthly, not hourly, rate). Teaching assistants at Shiny Happy English Smiles get under $1 per hour, while those at Melbourne-Massachusetts Hello 123 do a bit better – they make almost $1.5 dollars per hour. They also have no guaranteed hours, no health insurance and no holidays.
A pernicious clause in the employment contract of teaching assistants at Melbourne-Massachusetts Hello 123 states that if they do not work for two months, employment is terminated. Since the teachers’ hours are set by the employer, this arrangement results in a working relationship that Melbourne-Massachusetts Hello 123 can sever without having to enter into the costly process of officially sacking a teaching assistant.
At Shiny Happy English Smiles, teaching assistants are employed on an informal ‘verbal agreement’ and are paid in cash at the end of each month. The teaching assistant has no rights or job security; the employer retains the ability to terminate employment immediately and without warning.
The practice of subcontracting is also widely used by both companies to increase profitability by using a third party company to take responsibility for employing and remunerating staff. At Melbourne-Massachusetts Hello 123, working contracts for cleaners and security guards are outsourced. To use the cleaners as an example: they work 9 hours a day, 6 days a week, and get about $145 a month; many complain that they are often not paid on time. The cleaners’ salary was recently lowered. Those who complained were fired.
All the Vietnamese staff are scapegoated in ways that the companies wouldn’t dare to try with the expat teachers. If a teacher claims that money has gone missing from their bag, the cleaner who cleans the area near the bag gets fired immediately without her story being heard. Promised pay rises and bonuses for Vietnamese staff are arbitrarily denied with abstract excuses about how the staff member hasn’t achieved as much as they should have.
Employment conditions at these two English teaching companies are divided along foreign vs. local lines, with Westerners getting the better deal by far. The attitude of these companies toward their Vietnamese staff, whom they consider expendable, is despicable. With so few Western recruits aware of the gulf in employment conditions between themselves and local staff, these English Language Teaching (ELT) companies cleverly maintain the facade that the world of ELT in Vietnam certainly is the paradise it’s made out to be and are therefore able to continue to recruit young Western graduates.
The truth, however, is that ELT employment in Vietnam is defined by scapegoating, exploitation, and subcontracting.
* The writer is British, and lived and worked in Vietnam until recently. The opinions expressed are his own.**These names are pseudonyms. Melbourne-Massachusetts Hello 123 and Shiny Happy English Smiles each has over 20 campuses throughout Vietnam. Both teach around 15,000 students each year.
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