Reportage. Families send their children abroad to learn English for thousands of euros. But the employees of Education First say they are exploited and left to fend for themselves on poverty wages while on call 24/7.

The Education is First, the salary is zero

“Travel, learn a language and discover the world”: every teenager’s dream. For over 50 years, Education First has been the leading organization in the field of education abroad, offering language programs such as study vacations and language courses.

The gilded world of summer schools to which hundreds of thousands of Italian families are sending their kids – about 25,000 have been clients of EF, the market leader – has a dark side of exploitation. The “legal guardians” for the kids, who are not given adequate training, are offered poor working conditions: on-call 24/7, left to fend for themselves and with wages that amount to less than €1 per hour. The wages are paid by depositing money on a prepaid card, without any protections or social security contributions, thanks to Swiss labor laws.

The guiding philosophy is clear: to try to pass off a job that involves great responsibility as “a paid vacation for you as well.” It lasts for weeks at a time: the so-called “course leaders” need to pick up children as young as 8 (although most are in the 14-18 age range) at the Italian departure airport (where they will need to bring them back) and then must be available to them round the clock for anything that might happen: as their “legal guardians,” they are on-call day and night.

The complaints coming from a large group of workers – both Italians and others – are detailed and backed up by facts, although they insist on remaining anonymous to prevent retaliation. EF is banking on the high turnover among “course leaders,” which prevents them from banding together and sharing about their working conditions and criticisms of the company. But this time, it really seems that the denunciation of “exploitation” has broken through all barriers and the frustration has overflowed.

Founded in Switzerland, EF has been a global giant for decades, with offices throughout Europe. In 1965, Swedish billionaire Bertil Hult took the first group of children on a study trip to England. Since that day, Education First has come a long way (and so have their profits): it has slowly spread across the continent and is now present in 50 countries, with 580 schools and offices. Italy is no exception.

Every summer, families pay for their children’s study vacations at prices that are no walk in the park: for two weeks in the UK and Ireland – naturally the most desirable destinations for learning English with the most classic pronunciation – the cost is around €3,500. Those who can afford it can go across the oceans instead: two weeks in the United States costs €4,500, while for Australia the figure rises to €5,300.

With such prices, Education First is guaranteed substantial revenues, leading to staggering profits, enough to sponsor an elite cycling team.

In 2022, the Italian branch had a turnover of €8,665,034, with a quick recovery to pre-Covid levels, and is aiming for a much better result this year. Italians had already returned to travel in 2022, but in summer 2023 the study vacations sector recorded an increase of more than 50 percent over the previous year.

EF’s range of summer school offerings is extensive and promises “outings” and “fun,” as well as “the guarantees parents expect: safety, quality and constant assistance from experienced staff.”

However, that “experienced staff” is now denouncing “exploitative” conditions, as described in the courageous accounts of some of them who, daring to defy the corporate behemoth, have asked us to not use their real names.

The same situation is being described by workers from other nations. It all starts with the training: a one-day training course with no reimbursement for expenses, even for those who have to endure long journeys to reach the city where the course is held.

The pay depends on various factors, but it’s a starvation-level wage in every case. It starts from €350 for two weeks with full board. The figure rises to €550 in case only breakfast is included and the unfortunate worker has to pay for all their other meals.

Seniority is recognized only from the third year, and amounts to a pittance of only €50 extra on both two-week and three-week tours.

The more you work, the less you earn, as the math shows: for four weeks in the United States one gets only €800, equal to €28.57 per day. Taking into account the 24-hour on-call regime, the calculation is simple: just over €1 per hour. That’s five times less than the predatory national contracts that have led to calls for a “minimum hourly wage” of €9.

The so-called “contract” these workers have to sign is mind-boggling, governed by Swiss law, the country where EF is headquartered. It includes a strict “confidentiality clause,” and the worker is considered an “independent contractor” – self-employed – who “bears the responsibility for income tax, national insurance and social security contributions.” Payment is made on a prepaid card – from B4b payments – which is reloaded with the expected amount on the third day of work. Thus, it is clear that the company does not pay any social security contributions or taxes, as well as VAT.

“Personally, I have seen and experienced many unpleasant situations during my work with EF,” says Francesco (not his real name). “Besides the starvation-level pay, when the families pay so much money I’d expect that at least the students would be treated right (if the money doesn’t go to us tutors, it goes to the services, right?); but that doesn’t happen. Parents sometimes wait for hours before someone from the Italian offices responds to them. Every year we hear of parents wanting to file complaints about the quality of the service.

“The level of disorganization at destinations that I have seen and heard about from colleagues leaves one speechless. On our side, that of the workers, it’s like talking to a brick wall, both with the local offices and the Italian office. Whenever we point out issues, including serious ones, we are sent off with stock phrases such as ‘I understand your perspective,’ but at the end of the day nothing changes and you feel like you’ve just wasted your time. They tell you to ‘do it for the kids,’ but you realize it’s just a way to keep you in check by playing the empathy card. When that doesn’t work, there’s the guilt card: true psychological manipulation,” Francesco concludes.

“Obviously,” Veronica says (also not her real name), “the course leaders are those who bear the brunt of the frustration of the families and the kids, being the only ones actually working on site; and when the employer (the EF offices) is also hitting out at us, that’s really bad. In addition, the situations of great stress in which course leaders (and not only) are being put should be highlighted, so much so that in some cases it leads to crying fits – I’ve seen many of them in my weeks of work.”

Contacted by il manifesto, EF had this to say in its defense: “More than 250-300 course leaders leave from Italy alone each year. This is a number that allows obtaining international professional experience, travel and upgrading language skills at no cost: EF offers a weekly salary and covers the costs of travel, food, accommodation and insurance. Those who pass the selection receive information about the assigned EF course (dates, duration, destination) and a full day (over 8 hours) of specific training on group management, with international EF staff. They receive a detailed Leader Manual, with all the information about the role, destination details, emergency numbers available 24/7. They receive the contract which shows the total compensation, plus free room, board and travel, insurance, the period of validity and all terms governing the relationship between the parties. Ten days before departure, each leader is contacted via Zoom for a pre-departure webinar. That said, while we understand that some limited situations may occur during the peak season that require particular effort from some Leaders, EF always puts their safety and that of the students first. And, based on individual incidents, EF has always revised its procedures from year to year to ensure high quality programs in every detail.”

In return, the workers are making very specific accusations: “We are being paid for our language skills, social skills and for taking on responsibility, and many times we are left to our own devices because, especially during the month of July, there is chaos even among the local staff, who can barely help themselves, let alone us; while the Rome office postpones solving the problem for as long as possible, not listening to the complaints.

“As they describe it, it seems like they’re doing us a favor, when they’re obviously the ones profiting, given the starvation-level pay, the poor quality of life while on the job and the lack of rest days we have to deal with. The selection process is as nondescript as ever, and they’ll send out just about anyone. They say they have 250-300 people available, but throughout the summer course leaders are receiving emails asking them to go on last-minute trips on short notice because a number of people withdraw from their second work-trip after going through the first one; and there are others who, after hearing stories from those who have come back, even withdraw from their first one.

“So the approach they use is much like trawler fishing. The training in no way prepares you for the real experience, and instead is something like a glorified sales presentation full of self-praise, in the style of an American convention,” the workers conclude.

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