The Great Gig Economy in the Sky

Cool Lone Wolf Fantasy

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The ‘Gig Economy’, or as it used to be known ‘making people wait till you throw them some crumbs’ is one of the continuing shames of our profession. Casual work, often without contracts, with no holiday pay, sick pay, parental leave or any of the other benefits full-time workers enjoy is promoted as freelance work, with that kind of cool image of Tribeca loft apartments and commuting between clients on a bicycle with the wind in your hair. Not for us the waiting outside a meeting room, a bag of books, folders and papers hanging off us, eh?

I know that when I started freelance work and serial part-time work it was to do with better rates of pay. It’s always about better rates of pay. Working full time in a language school wasn’t going to pay enough to support a family. Yet two of the biggest providers of work for me for agency work are language school companies. The full-timers making about ¥2500 per hour get holiday pay and better health insurance and hybrid state and company pension. I forego those benefits to pay my own insurance and state pension but get more money.

This might be decried as me just having a moan, having cast myself as a Job-like figure of TEFL in Japan. Not quite. I earn decent money. What I’m complaining about is this:

If the same company can afford to pay ¥4000 per hour for very precarious conditions, or ¥2500 (or less) for less precarious conditions for the same work, isn’t it true that they can probably afford to pay the full-timers more or give freelancers less precarious work? 

This is before anything like qualifications and experience are taken into account, and generally in Japan, they aren’t taken into account very much at all.

“Oh, but with the gig economy you’re free to do whatever you want to do. Freedom is good!” I imagine people saying.

I say it is not. I say that you’re probably just as beholden to work with the gig economy or even more so because of a fear that work could dry up leaving you wondering if you could adjust to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. It’s all about control. Full-time leaves you beholden, freelance leaves you grateful for anything that comes your way. I’m lucky, because now I get none of my work through any of the Uber-for-EFL sites which have the flakiest students who want amazing, bespoke lessons for basically nothing, along with the right to cancel at a minute’s notice (and I am not exaggerating) with no fee.

What are the alternatives?

It may not seem like it, but there is a tiny sliver of light in the unrelenting darkness. There are communities that we make ourselves. Worker-owned cooperatives are the model that I think would be best, but this isn’t easy to sort out when you’re stretched with work already. Just knowing that somebody has your back is enough on some days; on others you need sick cover or a bit of help making some materials that you can’t actually find.

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We need less of the rampant individualist and more small-scale collectivist behaviour. Know yourselves, your strengths and weaknesses. We need to work together, help each other and pool our labour to stop large operators being the only option. Otherwise we keep the status quo: TEFL elites writing million-quid coursebooks, junkets to large conferences and people from supposed non-profit organisations who haven’t taught in donkey’s years being paid ten times more than you to tell you about your classroom practice.

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4 thoughts on “The Great Gig Economy in the Sky

    1. I think it’s actually possible for many chains now. What it would take would be for a company to take the lead and say that cheap teachers with inadequate education is not in learners’ interests. Hell is likely to freeze first.

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  1. Speaking not from personal experience… it would be very interesting if an employer stated that freelancing benefits the teacher as you can turn down the hours you don’t want. Then they don’t offer you sufficient hours to pay the bill but instead hire more teachers so that they are “easier to cover” but then everyone has to get work at other places so that they can pay the bills which actually makes them less available and unable to cover…meaning they have to hire more teachers and so the loop continues….clearly not speaking from any personal experience.

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    1. Thankfully this isn’t happening in Japan but I worry about the move to a wholly freelance model because it means companies don’t (need to) make social insurance contributions and such. Pair this with the race-to-the-bottom mentality and we have an awful situation.

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