The callousness and profit-mongering greed of those who run the ELICOS (English Language Intensive Courses for Overseas Students) industry have been on full display over the past months. The industry is being decimated – students have left the country in droves, causing massive disruption and decline. The bosses are passing every cent of the losses onto the already low-paid, precarious workforce.

As a long-time socialist and unionist, I already had a healthy scepticism of everything the bosses did or said. But the last month has been an education in just how low they can stoop, as companies engage in a race to the bottom to scrape whatever profit they can out of a quickly sinking sector. With a world economy spiralling into crisis, what is happening in ELICOS is a portent of things to come in many other industries.

One school, Explore English in Melbourne, is still forcing immune-compromised teachers to continue coming into work. “The reason, as someone from management admitted, is to try and compete with other schools that have fully transitioned online”, one teacher told Red Flag. “If we still offer a face to face option, then maybe we can steal clients from our competitors. Never mind the fact that this puts staff, students and the surrounding community at higher risk of infection and even death.”

At another, Ability English in Sydney, managers refused to immediately stop classes when a student called to say they had tested positive for COVID-19. Class continued until the end of the evening to keep up the charade of “business as usual”. There have been attempts to cut salaries – International House attempted to illegally undercut the minimum Award rates by 15 percent. Thankfully, this was foiled by union pressure.

There have also been sackings and shifts cut without pay. “Many of those that have moved online have done so with barely any investment in training and support for teachers, and with little regard for teacher and student consultation”, said Orlando Forbes, a union rep. “We’re seeing unscrupulous providers packing classes full of students in order to employ less teachers.”

This happened at my school. The owners used the transition to online teaching as an opportunity to almost double the student-teacher ratio, thereby cutting jobs. This was announced by the manager via video-call – while she was hiding 200m away in her office! The jobs cut included those of the entire union bargaining team. There are similar stories across the industry.

The most used word by teachers to describe online classes right now is “shitshow”. Teachers delivering classes are doing double the work for the same pay to adapt their material for online delivery. Not to mention that the platforms are often unworkable, and teachers and students alike have little training and support in using them.

Students have also been left in the lurch, with schools refusing to provide refunds or discounts after they bungle the transition to online learning. Many students have lost their jobs and can’t claim government support or return home.

The industry makes more than $2 billion dollars annually. Many of the students go on to study at universities and TAFEs, so a decline in this industry will have a flow-on effect to others. The sector until now has been in boom, and the owners of the various private colleges in ELICOS have become rich. Not so the thousands of teachers, administration and student support workers who do the actual work of teaching English, supporting students and putting a human face to a cold, unsupportive and exploitative system.

We plan and deliver interesting, engaging lessons that bring the language to life. We decode and explain complex grammar, we find resources to pique our students’ interest, we invent games to encourage interaction. Most teachers in the sector are casuals, both short- and long-term, paid at the legal minimum, the Award. We are the lowest paid educators in the country. Our most experienced teachers on the highest step-level barely make what a graduate or second-year high school teacher makes. This has been the case during the boom years – not once did these employers share the profits when the cash was flowing.

The bosses and their lackeys in management argue that “we’re all in this together” – that times are unprecedented and we’ve got to pull together as a team. We’re all equals, apparently, when the ship is sinking. But it’s obvious that the captains and officers are doing a hell of a lot better than the crew. It’s not the bosses who have been forced to continue working in unsafe environments, risking infection and illness to provide “face to face” teaching. It’s not the bosses facing the sack if we refuse. It’s not the bosses looking down the barrel of missed rent payments and not affording food if we’re forced to take a pay cut or if our shifts are cancelled.

The bosses see an opportunity to lower the bar for our conditions even further, to reshape the industry completely, in a manner that is even more callous, calculating and profit-mongering than it ever was. For example, the move to online learning has also come with plans to pack more students into classes. We will struggle to whittle the teacher-student ratios down to manageable sizes again.

Right now, the Jobkeeper scheme is an important battlefield. We have to make sure the bosses not only sign up to the scheme, but every eligible worker gets the payment. Many of us have been kept in the dark about whether the college was eligible, and whether management had applied for the scheme. Some colleges want to pick and choose which eligible employees they nominate for Jobkeeper. Others are attempting to use the new laws to further cut hours, pay and conditions. The weakness of the legislation, and lack of oversight means it’s up to us to make sure they don’t get away with it.

These developments have met resistance from the network of unionised teachers in the Independent Education Union (IEU) across Melbourne and Sydney, who have fought tooth and nail against every attack. Our organising began well before the crisis hit – beginning at Kaplan Melbourne, where they unionised and were able to win an agreement with significant gains in pay and conditions. Teachers at other colleges have tried to follow suit. At colleges such as Explore, Impact, Ability, ILSC and International House unionised, teachers elected union reps and, in some cases, began negotiating new agreements with employers. Our union meetings are lively and involved and now sometimes held over Zoom. While the coronavirus crisis has meant that we have had to suspend our initial moves towards bargaining, this network of unionists has been invaluable in ensuring we don’t take this employer offensive lying down.

We have stormed management offices, demanded meetings, circulated countless petitions among teachers and students, email-bombed the boss and participated in online protests. And we have had some small, but very valuable victories. Some of those victories have simply been about communication – it has been a win just to have an idea of what tomorrow at the workplace will look like.

The latest and most significant struggle was at International House, where the bosses tried to force through the pay cut. “It was through the support of the union reps network and the IEU organisers and lawyers that were able to put pressure on management and get a formal letter addressing the illegal actions of the company in less than 24 hrs and the weekend”, a teacher explained. “This win was so important to all of us in the industry because it reminds us that management doesn’t have all the power – that we can rise up if we unite. With International House as an industry leader it is important to show that our work has value, that we cannot allow ourselves to be devalued by management and that ELICOS teachers need to band together to continue to fight for our rights to ensure a more secure industry for our fellow teachers.”

There will likely be a tsunami of job losses and other offensives to come in the next few months. But that doesn’t diminish the significance of the win at International House. We can’t let employers bully us into whittling away the basic conditions that unionists over the decades have fought for, simply because “we’re lucky to have a job”. The job losses are coming unless we fight to defend them, and any conditions we agree to in the meantime will be the conditions that we allow every other teacher to work under. And they will be the conditions we come back to when the industry picks up.

Even if we lose, the very act of fighting is important. For one, it’s about sending a message to the bosses – we won’t take this lying down. Just as importantly, it’s about the message we send to ourselves – that we deserve more than this. We deserve good pay, safety, security, respect and dignity in our jobs. And the way to win this is by solidarity – by joining the union, taking collective action and supporting each other in whatever way we can. The past few weeks have shown that we are more than capable of such solidarity, in all sorts of amazing, surprising and creative ways. These are lessons that will stay with us, which we will take with us to our next battles with the bosses – whether in ELICOS or elsewhere.