Six months ago, teachers at Kaplan International English, an English language school in Melbourne, began unionising their workplace. The teachers are aiming to secure the first ever enterprise bargaining agreement at the school.

The log of claims they are fighting for includes a significant pay claim. They are demanding parity with Embassy English, the only other school in Victoria with an agreement. Concretely, this means an 18.7 percent increase in the first year, followed by a 3.25 percent per year increase over the life of the agreement. 

It also includes claims for increased job security, leave entitlements, more workplace control and provisions to maintain an active union presence, specifically delegate-led union inductions for all new staff.

The value of the English language teaching market in Australia is estimated at $2 billion. In Victoria, it sits at the top end of export money makers, along with coal and iron ore. Kaplan International English is a significant player in the world market. It has dozens of schools across Europe, the US, UK and Europe. In 2017 it boasted revenue of $1.5 billion.

Unsurprisingly, these mammoth profits have not trickled down to workers. English language teachers in Australia get paid the minimum award wage of around $50,000 per year, or $24 an hour. Like hospitality and retail, the industry suffers high rates of casualisation, wage theft and poor conditions. Across the industry, unionisation rates are low even compared to these other low-density sectors. Only one school in Victoria – Embassy English – currently has an agreement with wages and conditions significantly above award rates. The situation isn’t much better interstate. 

Against this backdrop, the collective effort of workers at Kaplan is something to write home about. In six months, the teachers have achieved a unionisation rate or around 80 percent, built a strong, active sub-branch of the Independent Education Union, elected delegates, drafted a comprehensive log of claims and forced their employer into negotiations. 

None of this has been easy, but they’ve already had some wins. When the company refused to begin negotiations, union members initiated a petition to secure a majority support determination at the Fair Work Commission.

Where it can be demonstrated that a majority of employees to be covered by a proposed agreement support the negotiation of an agreement with their employer, the commission can compel the employer to negotiate. The petition was successfully submitted, and the commission ruled in the teachers’ favour. 

Teachers joined the union for a variety of reasons. According to one staff member, the hypocrisy in the school’s rhetoric was galling, telling Red Flag, “Kaplan prides itself on being the best in the world; they should pay their teachers accordingly”.

Another worker, assistant union representative Andrew, told Red Flag that the staff at the school have created “a fantastic supportive environment” for themselves and Kaplan students, but that wages and conditions do not reflect their efforts. He joined the union because he “has seen how unions can benefit professional educators”.

Claire, another elected union representative, said she took on the position of union representative because she’s passionate about it: “I think that the whole sector should be organised”, she told Red Flag. “Companies should support their staff being protected and fairly compensated.”

The teachers have set their sights high. They are hoping that their efforts will inspire teachers at other schools to organise. The union has fewer than 100 members in the sector in Victoria, and there are dozens of schools, thousands of teachers and thousands more students paying enormous fees. There’s huge potential and a lot of work to be done. Given that the sector is booming, now is the time to start.