More Myths about Foreign Teachers: Foreign English Teachers and Labour Organizations

In one of my more controversial posts, I raised the idea that there is such little real information really known about foreign English teachers that there are myths being created to fill this void. A recent post on concerning the decline in income for foreign teachers in Taiwan, raises another one of these myths. Speculating on the reasons why foreign teachers in Taiwan are not represented by any sort of workers organizations, Namohottie states,

I have often wondered myself why there hasn’t been more unity among the ESL community here in Taiwan. Here are my deductions:

1)A diversity of foreign groups.
2)The government’s stance on the foreigner worker.
3)Culture aspects.
4)The market value of the job itself in Taiwan and abroad.
5)Turnover rate

I have heard arguments like this over and over for the past 15 years, and despite their persistence, they are quite wrong.

At least (1), (3), (4), and (5) are wrong. As recently as 1994, the head teacher of my school in Japan was arguing that attempts to unionize foreign English would fail because teachers are too transient and therefore couldn’t form a union even if they wanted too. Note that his argument was not that teachers couldn’t form a worker’s union, but that they don’t want to organize a union. Yet, within a few years, foreign English teachers in Japan had, in fact, organized and become represented by a number of different trade unions.

That’s right. There are trade unions organizing foreign English teachers in Japan. And there have been for years! I found out about this back around 2000, and they’d been around quite a while, even by then. Today, unionized teachers work at many of the major chain schools, including Berlitz, GEOS, and NOVA, as well as various private high schools, colleges, and universities. You can find English-language links to more information here by scrolling down near the bottom of the page.

So why aren’t teachers in Taiwan organized? The answer is really straightforward; it’s against the law. You’d get deported, if you were lucky, for trying to organize your bushiban. The real question is not why there are no worker’s organizations for foreign English teachers, but rather why Taiwanese unions don’t seem interested in challenging this law. Some of the reason is no doubt a xenophobic reaction to the idea of letting foreigners into their group. But I suspect the real reason lies more in the politically charged nature of Taiwanese trade unionism. Without a class-based political system, labour unions simply don’t function in the same way as they do in Western nation states.

But like everything else in Taiwan, there have been numerous attempts at organizing foreign English teachers in other, non-labour, organizations. These attempts have ranged from the bizarre Secret Society of English Teachers in Taiwan, which I am told resembles a college fraternity and is run by an anonymous website moderator who advocates working illegally (as he himself does), to DAFTS, which shut down operation within weeks of its formation.

So now that you know Taiwan is an anomoly for the organization of English teachers, even in Asia, let’s get this straight; the only reason there are no effective organizations protecting foreign teacher’s working rights in Taiwan is that it is currently illegal, and no one has the will or commitment to organize a group that would challenge this. End of story.

February 26, 2005 | Permalink

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Scott, at least for university teachers formerly covered by the retirement/pension prolicy, then our income has indeed gone down when you factor in the lost income that the new government policy eliminates now that we no longer receive a pension upon retirement, regardless of years of service. The former policy was that we received the same retirement package as local teachers (minus a couple Taiwanese-specific programs) and that we would receive a pension. However, under the new rules, we do not receive a pension, only a lump sum which is a fraction of the former benefit even when you don’t consider the spousal and dependant benefits. So, in a way, yes our income has gone down. Obviously, this affect young folks who have only been here a short time less than those of us who have spent fifteen, twenty, or more years here counting on our retirement benefits, including the pension. I know folks who are quite close to retirement who are shocked to suddenly be informed that they will receive no pension regardless of having served here for well more than enough years to qualify and this is topped with the realization that they won’t be getting Social Security if they return to the US. I’d say that’s a substantial income drop. See the blurb hidden in Erick Heroux’s post and my rant on my page.

Posted by: Brian David Phillips, PhD, CH | February 28, 2005 at 16:43

Brian, thank you very much for the information and the link. But knowing the details of this only increases my wonder that no credible organization has arisen to represent foreign teachers. It’s unfashionable to talk about this, but I suspect that one of the reasons could be that the large income available to foreign teachers through outside work compensates to some degree for this. On the other hand, if this is the case, then further moves that affect the earning power of foreign teachers could be interpreted as encouraging outside work, which, as we all know, is not the case.

Posted by: Scott Sommers | February 28, 2005 at 16:59

Of course, my rant doesn’t really apply to most foreign English teachers in Taiwan as the pension was not widely a part of the compensation package – folks teaching at National Universities would receive it as part of the Civil Employees package but the rest of the folks were uniformly screwed as a matter of course. It still sucks to have it taken arbitrarily away after the previous assurances. IMO.

Posted by: Brian David Phillips, PhD, CH | February 28, 2005 at 17:52

Sounds a lot like Korea. I’m fairly sure however that ESL teachers in Korea will get thier pension. It’s standard right now that teachers leaving the country and not returning recieve all their pension contributions.

Posted by: Blinger | March 01, 2005 at 06:14

Scott – There isn’t much money in teaching english, so the unions/mob aren’t interested.

The original point #5 (workers are too transient) raised a good point. Folks who are inclined to join a union (with the limitations and pay cuts it brings) tend to be the same folks* who stay and teach english for years at a time. The folks who teach for only a year or two aren’t interested, but put up with the union baloney anyway.

* – Folks such as yourself, who work at it and get a university job, aren’t I’m talking about here.

Posted by: Scott | March 01, 2005 at 13:07

I am a non-Japanese union member in Japan with the National Union of General Workers – Tokyo South ( I am running for an executive position of the unions Foreign Workers Caucus.

I was dispatched by a private company as an Assisitant Language Teacher to elementary schools, junior high schools and high schools in the Tokyo area.

In February 2005, the Japanese Ministry of Education sent out a notification to all prefectural boards of education that this sort of work was illegal as it violates Education Law, despiet the practice having been carried out since 1999.

Of concern to the Taiwan situation though, is that I was doing the exact same kind of work in Taiching City in 1998-99 where I was dispacthed by Taipei Language Institute to teach at two high schools in Taichung City, Gao Nong and Zhong Yi.

The part of Japanese Edcuation Law that is violated is a section which maintains that the principal must be in control of all staff to direct their work; however, if one is dispatched by a company, then the principal is not in control of that worker, the company is. The gossip that the workplace was that our work in the school was illegal but no one did anything about it.

I actually lost my job in fighting this issue and my employer over other violations but I have half a mind to make a trip to Taiwan and talk to anyone who would be interested in listening about union organizing etc.

Please feel free to email me.

Posted by: David Jobson | March 26, 2005 at 15:21

I just found this from Taiwan Union Law at

“Article 16
Any member of a labor union who is of the nationality of the Republic of China and has attained full 20 years of age may be elected director or supervisor of the union. ”

So, regarding unionizing at a non-governmental workplace where one is not, in the eyes of the law, considered a teacher such as workers at Global Village, for example, it would seem to me that non-Taiwanese could be in a union , although they cannot serve as directors.

So, if one wanted to start up a union at say Global Village, the Taiwanese secretaries could be the directors and the foreign workers could then join that union.
There are over a hundred secretaries working for Global Village across the country. All you need is 5, if I am reading the Union Law correctly right. See below…

“Article 14
A labor union shall have directors and supervisors to be elected from among the members among the members thereof. The number thereof shall be as follows:
1. Five to nine directors for a labor union below the hsien level; ”

Posted by: David Jobson | March 31, 2005 at 14:02

Maybe I should have mentioned that Union Law states that those who are legally recognized as teachers cannot form a union in Taiwan.

However, there arises a golden opportunity to unionize dispatched foreigner workers in public school in Taiwan, as in Japan, who do the work of a teacher yet are not faced with the legal labor limitations of being a teacher.

My employment situation in Japan is very similar my previous employment situation in Taiwan: I was dispatched to teach at a high school, but I was not legally recognized as being a “teacher”.

In my case, in Japan, my dispatch company refused to meet for collective bargaining as requested by our union. Collective bargaining is a legal right and cannot be denied, so, if it is, the union has legitimate grounds to demonstrate in front of the company. Also, as established in labor case law in Japan, the client of the dispatch company (eg. the boad of education who hires teachers through them) may be held responsible to bargain collectively. Thus the board of education may be targetted by the union for demonstrations, requests for collective bargaining, strikes etc…

So, in my case, that is what happened. Our branch union demanded collective bargaining from the school board after the company refused. The board ignored our request, but a few months later they cut four of the teaching positions that that dispatch company had held with them, and we ended up winning a settlement with the company.

In Taiwan, I had worked for the Taipei Language Institute in Taichung. Having read what Taiwan Union law states, it could be possible for the Taiwanese and non-Taiwanese workers at TLI to create a union with the Taiwanese workers serving as the directors since only nationals can serve.

Posted by: David Jobson | March 31, 2005 at 14:26


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