Like many of my generation, my only viable post-university options included returning to my parents' house, returning to non-graduate employment or interning for free while sleeping on sofas.
The option of teaching English in Vietnam sounded like a dream: a chance to live in a novel environment, get paid high wages and, perhaps most importantly, drink cheaper beer.
And I wasn't alone.
Vietnam’s rocketing economy and optimistic government plans to give every child access to a native English teacher by 2020 has drawn oodles of underemployed Westerners here.
That huge migration likely begins with a quick look at a utopian job ad. A quick internet search returned loads of high-paying language center postings. Many of the ads were sweetened with teacher testimonials about the beauty of the local culture, the friendly people, and endless pictures of beaches and beers.
Yet for all the benefits these companies offer their Western employees, their local employees suffer exploitation, scapegoating and subcontracting. Here, I will focus on the practices employed at two specific English language centers: Melbourne-Massachusetts Hello 123 and Shiny Happy English Smiles.**
The most obvious difference between the treatment of local and Western staff at both places is an absurd gulf in pay.
We're offered full-time contracts that pay anywhere from US$1000-2000 for about 20 hours teaching a week. In Vietnam, where living costs and average wages are low, this puts us in the top tier of the nation's earners. Teachers at Melbourne-Massachusetts Hello 123 are also provided with holiday pay, a healthy relocation bonus and health insurance.
Our rights are also actively protected and advocated for.
One of the first things Ted Osius, the new US ambassador to Vietnam, did after he arrived was advise President Sang to promote and protect American English teachers here. This stands in stark contrast to the employment conditions offered to local staff.
The Vietnamese administrative staff of Melbourne-Massachusetts Hello 123 and Shiny Happy English Smiles do huge amounts of work to make sure that the companies run smoothly. They have to do loads of tasks, including recruiting teachers and attracting customers, managing teaching schedules and finances, making sure that teachers have all the equipment they need, dealing with complaints, and inducting new students and staff.
They also provide invaluable support to teachers undergoing the teething problems associated with working in a foreign country.
For this, the administrative staff are paid roughly US$250-300 per month.
Teaching assistants, the Vietnamese who work directly with their Western counterparts in the classroom, don’t even get full-time contracts.
They are all bilingual and provide a vital bridge between the students and native teachers - most of whom do not speak Vietnamese.
Teaching assistants set and mark homework, complete attendance registers, note what’s been studied, and deal with the complaints of demanding parents. Native English teachers, on the other hand, prepare a few games and then go and play them with the students.
Since teaching assistants work on temporary contracts, Melbourne-Massachusetts Hello 123 and Shiny Happy English Smiles do not have to pay them the nation's minimum monthly wage (Vietnam sets local minimum wages at a monthly, not hourly, rate). Teaching assistants at Shiny Happy English Smiles get under $1 per hour, while those at Melbourne-Massachusetts Hello 123 do a bit better - they make almost $1.5 dollars per hour. They also have no guaranteed hours, no health insurance and no holidays.
A pernicious clause in teaching assistant contracts at Melbourne-Massachusetts Hello 123 states that if they do not work for two months, their employment is automatically terminated. Since the teachers' hours are set by the employer, this arrangement results in a working relationship that Melbourne-Massachusetts Hello 123 can sever without having to enter into the costly process of officially sacking a teaching assistant.
At Shiny Happy English Smiles, teaching assistants are employed on an informal ‘verbal agreement’ and are paid in cash at the end of each month. The teaching assistant has no rights or job security; the employer retains the ability to terminate employment immediately and without warning.
The practice of subcontracting is also widely used by both companies to increase profitability by having a third party company take responsibility for employing and remunerating staff. At Melbourne-Massachusetts Hello 123, employment contracts for cleaners and security guards are outsourced. To use the cleaners as an example: they work nine hours a day, six days a week, and get about $145 a month; many complain that they are often not paid on time. The custodial staff's salary was recently lowered.
Those who complained were fired.
Perhaps most disturbingly, Vietnamese staff are scapegoated in ways that the companies wouldn’t dare to try with the expat teachers. If a teacher claims that money has gone missing from their bag, the cleaner who had worked in the area where the loss occurred gets fired immediately without even being interviewed about the incident. Raises and bonuses that get promised to Vietnamese employees are arbitrarily denied based upon abstract criticism—vague suggestions that the employee hasn’t achieved a goal that was never really established.
In short, the attitude these companies maintain toward their Vietnamese staff is despicable.
Few Western recruits are aware of the gulf in employment conditions between themselves and local staff and these ELT companies do their best to keep the recruits blissfully unaware that their businesses run on exploitation, scapegoating and subcontracting.
It makes it a lot easier to solicit glowing testimonials designed to draw more of us out here.
* The writer is British, and lived and worked in Vietnam until recently. The opinions expressed are his own.