Warning: mega-rant ahead!
TL/DR version: Online teaching is crap unless you DIY, and it feeds the robot overlords!
I was inspired to start this thread when a job ad turned into an interesting discussion (ads in Forumosafieds automatically expire after 30 days), and the robot revolution came up in another thread at the same time.
We all know the two basic arguments about the new “sharing” or “gig” economy: on the one hand it’s going to give us all flexibility in our work lives and so on, and on the other hand it’s going to exploit us and ruin our lives.
Here’s a recent discussion of the “gig” economy’s flagship in the transportation industry.
Summary of the thread’s pro-Uber arguments:
- The taxi industry is dreadful, dirty, and dangerous, but Uber is clean and shiny.
- Uber is an innovative solution to the government’s “monopoly” on taxis.
- Uber gives drivers flexibility and doesn’t even act as an employer because it’s just a “matchmaking app”.
- The government just wants to squeeze Uber for cash because it’s a foreign company run by white people. (I suppose in France etc. the opposition must be based on the parent company being American.) (Edit: Or Dutch, or Caymanian, or something.)
- Uber will save the environment by allowing people to use their cars productively instead of forcing people to let their cars sit and rust. (Ask Finley.)
Summary of the thread’s anti-Uber arguments:
- Uber refuses to follow the law by registering as a taxi business and paying taxes and insurance premiums.
- Uber is trying to become a global super-monopoly.
- Uber doesn’t even pay drivers fairly and doesn’t protect them when they get in trouble for illegal work (except in France, apparently).
- Uber exerts control over drivers in the manner of an employer yet refuses to recognize the drivers as employees who are entitled to the benefits of employment (pensions and so on).
- Uber will replace drivers with robots as soon as it’s feasible.
In this thread I want to talk about how the Uber model – and especially those last two points – applies, or could apply, in the education industry, because once this thread http://tw.forumosa.com/t/extra-income-online-teaching-opportunity-high-pay/157596 expires, the discussion will still be worth continuing.
The ad in Forumosafieds (“EXTRA INCOME_Online Teaching Opportunity-HIGH PAY!”) was for an online teaching company based in mainland China, VIPKID. Go ahead and check out their website, http://www.vipkid.com.cn. And go ahead and check out the cheerleading in the mainstream media, everything from the Wall St Journal to the Global Times.
The negative reaction to the ad mostly involved the “HIGH PAY” of $14-16/hour or NT$420-480" and the OP’s claimed “$640 and $750/hour” with bonuses (that would be up to about $25 US), even though the website advertises a maximum of $22 US per hour (including bonuses).
The major mitigator is having no commuting time because you work from home. (They don’t mention the other big one: not needing to live in an absurdly polluted environment. I wonder why…)
This company may or may not be better than competitors like TutorABC, Gjun, etc. (discussion of those can be found here: TutorABC and GJun Encounters), but my impression of online teaching work is that if you don’t control it yourself (iow be your own agent), you’re probably being taken for a ride.
Sadly, James Laoshi’s website seems to have disappeared into the void. But you can still listen to some of his lessons.
My favorite part of the discussion:
Another juicy exchange:
Without the details of the contract, it’s hard to know which view – control by the company or control by the teachers – is closer to the truth, just like it’s hard to say how much control Uber has without seeing its driver contract. But the fact that this is even a question means it’s not clear whether or not an employment relationship is supposed to exist between the two sides, whether it’s Uber or an education company.
The details of how to determine whether or not an employment relationship exists vary by jurisdiction, which could cause headaches for a company that wants to operate globally. However, every jurisdiction that abides by ILO recommendations (and in theory that includes Taiwan) has a similar set of principles, if not specific tests like the number of hours worked per week or per month. The basic idea is that if Party A has siginificant control over Party B, it’s employment, and if not, it’s independent contracting. (In some countries there are more categories like “dependent contracting”.)
The traditional, agricultural/industrial view of employment is that it’s a form of servitude or even slavery to the employer, i.e. absolute or near-absolute subordination to the employer, and some people still desperately want this view to prevail, repeating the mantra that the worker is a machine and must not be permitted even the slightest freedom, and if there is even the slightest freedom for the worker then it’s not employment.
The prevailing view in the legal systems of societies that are or aspire to be post-industrial starts from the opposite end: independent contracting means absolute or near-absolute autonomy for the worker, so even a partial loss of freedom is likely to indicate that it’s not independent contracting and therefore is actually employment (or dependent contracting in some cases).
In general, it makes sense for an employer to own the work tools and the result of the work. The ILO and other experts are well aware of the fact that many employees do own their own tools, depending on the nature of the work, but the point is that they don’t own the entire factory, or the entire buxiban, or even a large machine in the factory or a classroom in the buxiban, and so on.
There are other factors like whether the worker is paid once a month by the company or paid more often and by the clients instead of the company, and so on. It all comes back to the question of control vs. freedom.
Why this matters is because labor laws are supposed to give more protection to employees than to independent contractors, because the autonomy they sacrifice in order to become employees creates a greater need for protection. In crude terms, if you’re not an employee you need to fend for yourself, but if you are an employee then your employer needs to take care of you (pension, holidays, etc.), and the government has authority over your employer to make sure it does take care of you. It can also affect each party’s taxes.
As long as there is an appropriate balance between the rights and responsibilities of both parties, there should be no conflict. But what if a company claims the benefits of being an employer (control of the workers) yet denies having the corresponding responsibilities?
- The company prepares the teaching materials and makes them available to the teacher 6 to 12 hours in advance.
- Clients (parents) can only communicate with the company, not the teacher.
- The teacher must use the company’s web portal, not Skype etc.
- The teacher must be available for a minimum number of hours per week during “peak hours” (Beijing time) including weekends and inform the company of his/her availability one month in advance, but the company only provides a weekly schedule about a day and a half in advance and can change it with 24 hours’ notice.
- Payment ocurs once a month, 10 to 15 days after the month has ended.
- The teacher must sign a 6 month contract and give 2 weeks’ notice before taking time off.
All of these companies – VIPKID, TutorABC, Teacher James, Uber, etc. – emphasize the freedom aspect in their promotional material, and if I’m not mistaken, all of them identify their workers as independent contractors. Yet if the company selects and owns the tools (teaching materials, web portal), it tells the worker when to work (clear imbalance between each side’s ability to determine the schedule), the payment takes the form of a regular wage, and the company owns the “representations” (whatever the hell that means!), it is not difficult, by post-industrial standards, to see this as a form of employment.
As for working from home, the ILO agrees with the EU that telecommuting does not stand in the way of employment, iow the telecommuting worker is just as likely to be an employee as if physically present in a workplace that the worker does not own or rent.
At the end of the day, I wouldn’t touch one of these teaching sites with a ruler of any size if they promise to treat me like an employee when it suits them and like a contractor the rest of the time, and the only thing they offer in return for crappy conditions (pay is low, they have more control over the schedule, and they own the work!) is not having to commute.
If you’re truly independent, you may still use an agency to meet clients, and the agency needs some degree of control to make sure you won’t just steal the clients and stiff the company, but you shouldn’t need to give up your control over the materials etc., and you should absolutely have control over the result of the work, other than notes the student takes as part of the learning process and whatever you choose to give the student. Handing out worksheets is one thing, but letting students take videos in class is another.
(To compare this with the “matchmaking” analogy for Uber, you may use a matchmaker to meet your “match”, but you wouldn’t let your matchmaker be your constant chaperone, record videos of you on dates, and be the godfather or your children, would you? )
With this sort of thing becoming more common, where is it heading?
I stand by what I said, that this process takes time, and demand for human workers in white collar fields is not going to disappear in five or ten years, despite increasing attempts to make us disappear.
Nonetheless, the robot revolution is coming, and computers are analyzing lots of information about us already. So, when you have a specially designed system of looking into a webcam and doing your funny little human activity according to a specially designed curriculum, subject to opaque data collection laws and a release agreement for “any representations”, in 2017 is it really far-fetched to imagine this kind of company wants to go in the same direction as Uber – with its goal of driverless cars – and switch to “teacherless classes”?
That would mean coming full circle: the worker is a machine after all.
Like I said, I don’t believe it’s around the next corner, but I don’t see any reason to encourage it to happen faster, at least until we as a species get our house in order.