Across the British Council, especially in Spain, managerial relationships with staff are slipping and storm clouds are gathering.
Busmens’ holidays in the sun?
Many think that English as a Foreign Language (EFL) is a bit of an industry for extended holiday makers. There we are, off gallivanting around the world, in nice sunny climes like Spain, having conversation classes with bankers about Rioja wine and La Liga football in the morning, before retiring to the beach or a sunny terrace for beers in the afternoon sun.
The reality is that many language teachers living overseas have resided there for years, if not decades. They’re settled down, often rearing families, worrying about those very same everyday needs that folks back in their homelands have. Apart from the general guarantee of sunshine in most areas, we have the same worries about paying bills or getting a new dance costume or football kit for the kids.
Others who maybe haven’t integrated so well often suffer feelings of isolation, never completely integrating, known as Ulysses Syndrome. That bubble feeling that emigrants from their homeland might fall into, with its byproducts of depression or alcoholism, is a very real mental-health threat.
Apart from teachers, spare a thought for EFL administration staff. Here, they are generally local folk, speakers of Spanish, Basque, Catalan or Valencian, and generally on pay bands lower than teachers, though they may be treated as full-time instead of the part-time status teachers normally have.
Between staff, there are even a few married couples, definitely so here in the British Council, sometimes between teachers and other times admin staff with teachers so, between household bills and worries, there’s definitely a family feel in our workplace!
British Council Spain, whose centres in Barcelona, Bilbao, Madrid, Palma de Mallorca and Valencia employ about 900 people, are shielded somewhat from the often shocking terms and conditions in language teaching by robust union representation. Staff are represented locally by elected staff committees with powers of delegation and health and safety. Whenever national matters arise, a mesa or comisión negociadora (negotiating commission) is constituted, with proportionate numbers of delegates from each centre forming the staff side.
However, now management don’t seem to want to negotiate, and have pushed through various changes seen as substantial, which must be negotiated under Spanish labour law.
Let’s see two examples among a growing list of grievances:
Paltry pay rises
The post-Covid economic hangover and global events have pushed prices up. Inflation is high and pay packets just aren’t going the same distance. However, course prices are rising, maybe persuading potential students to look elsewhere for courses and qualifications considered valuable given Spain’s bureaucratic tendencies.
Academic institutions and employers demand language certificates, humorously known in Spanish slang as titulitus, or a sick obsession with certificates as opposed to actual ability. Titulitis, however, is a golden egg for the teaching business. We recently got a 2.5% pay rise, applied from April 1, 2022 which, when adjusted to its nine-month backdating, works out as 1.875%, well below Spain’s current 6.10% rate of inflation (as of February 2023) with food inflation, affecting those on low incomes more, significantly higher.
Now, if you dive into the British Council’s annual report for 2021-22, you’ll find some handsome salaries upstairs. I’m not complaining as, if you climb your organisation with hard work, then a handsome wage might be expected. If I were an RMT member, I’d certainly not be amused by the disingenuous mainstream hack attacks on union leaders regarding their salaries, and Mick Lynch definitely gives bang for the rank and file’s buck with his hard work.
That said, BC management might think better of our rank and file by awarding a pay rise in line with inflation as prices creep ever-upward.
Performance management with star ratings for teachers is another unnegotiated issue denoting a slippery slope.
Management paints it out as preexistent, though there hasn’t been any mutual scrutiny or agreement.
There are already rumblings that performance evaluation is being used against teachers, accusing them of underperformance whenever reporting learning or behavioural classroom issues, instead of supporting the teacher.
This claim of preexistence presumably refers to negotiations several years ago when our representatives on the British Council European Works Council negotiated an opt-out option on performance ratings for teachers in the EU. It subsequently fell by the wayside through mass boycott, ending up with very low compliance in Spain.
However, Performance Enablement is now involuntary, with management claiming it already exists as a result of the previous deal. It’s also not being brought in for certain countries, like Italy, but is said to be a global policy, so managerial arguments that it must be imposed globally, yet not in certain countries, is dubious.
Especially dubious is BC Spain management claiming the decision comes from above, though those even further upstairs seem just as reticent in discussing it.
A slippery slope
Both issues are floating on a sea of staff complaints, complaints coming alongside what the company calls its “global transformation”.
The feeling is very real that management simply aren’t listening to staff concerns or feedback, the same staff who work with customers and students every single day and who have to deal with bills while worrying about a gravelly slope sliding downwards towards unreasonable terms and conditions, and work performance systems that may well end up affecting pay or status.
I mention the metaphor of a gravelly hill, helplessness staff representatives feel whenever called to negotiations, and more so whenever completely cut out. Here, staff must stand together, with collective voices ringing. Staff voices are not intended to be destructive, but useful to business. We don’t appreciate being ignored, especially in organisational aspects we can help correct. We appreciate consultory processes that offset the most unpleasant outcomes of restructuring and cuts, consultations which at least leave the worst-affected with decent compensation as they pick up their lives in the wake.
Doing nothing is not an option, and neither is ignoring staff, the profit makers.
And if nothing happens, then the organisation is on a gravelly, slippery slope to conflict.
NOTE: The author of this article has preferred to remain anonymous to avoid reprisal.)