ESL teachers' strike cancels English classes for 600 Vancouver students
Teachers at Vancouver English Centre want fair wages, say school is not negotiating with them
Earlier this summer, Lala Bandres quit her job in Mexico to learn English in Canada. She received a three-month student visa, paid about $5,000 in tuition fees and packed her bags for Vancouver.
But the teachers at her school, Vancouver English Centre (VEC), have been on strike since Tuesday. The school is refusing to give her the refund she has asked for — and the clock on her student visa is ticking.
"What happens if I [go] back to Mexico, and this school doesn't give me my money, and this school doesn't give me my education?" Bandres asked. "I quit my job to study here and I [now] don't have anything — no school and no money."
About 600 students at VEC have had their English as a Second Language (ESL) classes cancelled until further notice due to the strike. ETEA Local 9, the union representing the school's teachers, says it's been trying to secure a fair contract for its members for the last 15 months, leaving them with no option but to strike.
"I felt really bad about having to do this [to the students]," said Kim Fissel, interim president of ETEA Local 9 and a teacher at the school for the last four years. "It's a very extreme movement, but unfortunately, it's what we had to do."
Union says school isn't negotiating
The school issued a notice to its students on Tuesday informing them of the strike. In place of classes, the school is offering students "a wide variety of leisure and sightseeing activities" in and around Vancouver, as well as four days of free tuition for each day of classes missed due to the strike.
Fissel said the activities are being facilitated by school administrative staff, and that some students have been asked to volunteer as well.
Hector Diaz, another VEC student, says sightseeing activities aren't an acceptable substitute for the education he paid for, or the refund he's been told he won't be receiving.
"If you pay for a hamburger and they give you tacos, it's unfair," Diaz said. "We are paying for education, not [to get to] 'know the city'. We can know the city ourselves."
Fissel said students have been told that the school is negotiating with the teachers, but that no such negotiations have happened since the strike began.
"We haven't heard a word from them," Fissel said. "We would definitely rather be teaching, because it's not that fun to be on the street waving at cars and getting honked at."
CBC News contacted VEC for comment, but the school was not able to make anyone available by deadline.
Teachers seek fair wages, pay for prep time
Fissel said VEC's teachers are seeking a fair living wage comparable to other schools the union represents.
She said the starting wage at VEC is $18 an hour for teachers in the adult ESL program, where other schools represented by the union pay $20 or $21 an hour. She said teachers in the school's ESL program for children make even less — between $12 and $14 an hour.
Fissel said the median income for VEC teachers is $25,000.
The union also wants its teachers to be paid for the extra prep time they put in outside of class time.
Fissel said that, on average, VEC teachers put in an additional 10 to 20 per cent of unpaid hours in prep work a week — about three to five hours a week.
Fissel said students have been supportive of the teachers, and that many were "horrified" to learn how little their teachers make.
No end in sight
VEC's teachers unionized 19 months ago in order to secure better wages and job security. The union says it has been negotiating with the school for 15 months, including third-party mediation, to no avail.
Fissel is hoping for a quick resolution to the strike, but having not yet heard from the school, she's not confident. She says the strike will continue until a fair contract can be reached.
The union has planned a rally for Friday afternoon, beginning at 12:30 p.m. PT. In addition to Local 9, the rally will also be in support of ETEA Local 11, whose members are also on strike at an ESL school in New Westminster.
"We will be out here as long as it takes," she said.
Until then, students like Bandres and Diaz have no English classes to attend, and so far, no refund forthcoming.
"I don't want to be here anymore, because I'm unhappy," Diaz said. "This situation is so uncomfortable for me."
With files from Jake Costello.
- Based on information from ETEA Local 9, a previous version of this story said VEC has teachers on staff with master's degrees making less than $25,000 a year; in fact, $25,000 is the median income of teachers at the school. It also said VEC teachers do between 10 to 20 hours of unpaid prep work a week; in fact, they do an additional 10 to 20 per cent of unpaid prep work a week, which works out to an extra three to five hours a week.Aug 05, 2016 9:21 AM PT