They say that bosses get the profits because they take the risk. But when business takes a hit, employers always look for ways to offload their losses onto workers. Just look at International House (IH), one of Australia’s largest private providers of English teaching. The company’s owner recently took advantage of anxiety about mass unemployment to launch an illegal assault on wages and conditions. But when the union stood its ground, bosses backed down.

At 6:30pm on Friday 3 April, IH management sent an email informing all staff that the company “will be applying a 15 percent wage cut effective the upcoming pay, processed on 7th April (for your work in the past fortnight)”. English teachers are already some of the lowest paid educators. The cut would put their pay 15 percent below the legal minimum.

The contract was also sent to teachers who had been let go but were still awaiting their final paycheck. The company also said that “superannuation payments may also be delayed”. But of course, “once the crisis is over, the company will endeavour to make all superannuation payments”.

The implicit message was crystal clear: don’t like it? Join the dole queue.

Teachers and support staff in the heavily-casualised ELICOS industry (English Language Intensive Courses for Overseas Students) are suffering. With international travel banned and classes moving online, enrolments are down and many jobs have already been cut. Teachers are worried about whether they will get work in the weeks and months to come.

In the email to staff, management justified the decision by saying that the cut would apply to everyone, including managers. But we're not all in this together. ELICOS has been booming for a decade. On the cusp of the coronavirus crisis, the Sydney Morning Herald reported that the industry was worth $2.35 billion. Despite the massive profits in this period, staff pay was always around the award rate (that is, the legal minimum). The only exception was schools in which the Independent Education Union (IEU) has been active. Teachers were never rewarded in the good times, but we're punished in the bad. 

Everything in the IH contract was a black-and-white violation of employment law, and IH knew it. That's why management chose to send it at the end of the week, when they thought they could catch teachers off-guard, isolated and afraid. Many teachers were angry, but felt powerless. What can we do? The industry is crumbling; surely this is the only way to keep our jobs?

Here's the problem: if we accept this argument, where does it end? Thirty percent pay cut? Fifty percent? Opening the door to attacks makes it a whole lot harder to close it again.

The effects of a contract like this would ripple through the entire industry. Suddenly, bosses at every school would learn that they can cut wages as much as they like – and that they better if they want to stay competitive. A race to the bottom would ensue. The response from IH employees was a litmus test for employers everywhere.

That's where the good news comes in. 

Several teachers were ready to fight it. The IEU has a solid presence at some schools, and a few at others ready to push back. Union members were in constant communication with their workmates about the illegality and immorality of this move. They encouraged colleagues to feel entitled to their pay, and patiently argued with those who thought it was a fair compromise. 

When the contract leaked to a popular Facebook group for those in ELICOS, a huge argument broke out between those in mostly senior positions defending the move, and those who didn't accept that bosses should break the law, and break their employees’ bank accounts, to prop up the firm’s profits.

“In light of the extraordinary circumstances, it seems quite fair. What decision would you take?” one person wrote. But they got a firm reply from another worker: “With the amount of prep required for online teaching, if anything they should be given a pay rise”. At the same time, the IEU wrote the company a scolding letter:

“[The] college knows that it is doing the wrong thing, both morally and legally … If the union does not receive advice from IH by COB on Monday, 6th April, that IH is rescinding the proposed changes, the IEU will commence immediate legal proceedings.”

All this combined sank the plan. Not just the legal threat – the public shaming, the visceral anger and the feeling that workers were organising spooked management. On Monday morning, the owner of IH wrote to inform employees that “contrary to the details of this email … all IH staff will be paid in full on Tuesday, 7 April, in accordance with the Education Services Award. This also applies to the employees who have signed the agreement”.

This was a great win in a difficult time. A few days later, teachers at the Melbourne school signed on to a statement demanding class size limits and that government handouts to the business go to workers’ wages.

This isn't the end of it; management likely will retaliate. But educators should be proud that they have blocked a move that would have had devastating repercussions beyond our ranks. We have a message of dignity: Yes, we love to teach — but you can't walk all over us.

To ELICOS staff: join your union today, get in touch with your workmates and stick together to protect our livelihoods.