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Auxiliares in Spain: Why some language assistants in the Valencia region are still waiting to get paid

Each year thousands of English-speakers enrol in a programme to work in public schools across Spain as language assistants known in Spanish as auxiliaries de conversación.

Auxiliares in Spain: Why some language assistants in the Valencia region are still waiting to get paid
Photos from the protest held outside the Regional government in Valencia. Photo: Auxiliaressincobrar

These native-English speakers assist Spanish teachers for 16 hours a week in the classroom usually over four days during term-time for the reward of a monthly stipend of €1,000, designed as a tax-free grant (beca) to cover living expenses.

Participants are invited to Spain by the Ministry of Education, and are then assigned to autonomous regions of Spain on programmes runthe regional government’s department of education.

But in Valencia, where around 800 individuals are ‘employed’ in the programme, there have been long-running problems that have seen some auxiliaries still waiting to be paid after more than four months.

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Those who enquired about late payments were repeatedly fobbed off, emails ignored and phone calls not answered.

Hammond Knight, a 33-year-old from South Carolina was one of them.

Last year, he was among a huge group of auxiliaries who worked without pay for the first three months of the school year and ran up credit card bills to survive.

“We started term on October 1st and were told to expect that there might be a delay in the first payment, but then the end of November rolled by and there was still no money. I took out a loan in the US and ran up some credit card bills just to get through. And I’m still paying those off.”

He was finally paid the three month back log just before Christmas but is still paying off his debts. “I thought it was a blip but again at the start of this year, I wasn’t paid on time. I’m working seven days a week doing online teaching to classes in China just to make ends meet, pay of my debts and create a bit of a buffer,” he admitted.

On school teaching days he wakes up at 5.30am to give an online class before heading to school. “I teach to China and because of the time-difference I can fit in a skype class before the day job. Then I work Friday, Saturday and Sunday too.”     

He was among a group of auxiliaries who staged a protest last Friday outside Valencia’s Education ministry to demand answers.

So to was Anne Tiesenga, 49 from Chicago, who for the last three years has taught in a school in Catarroja in the Valencia region, and who has led the campaign for fair treatment for auxiliaries and tried to get to the root of the problem of late payments.

“The problem was that we are not strictly teachers, and therefore employees, but are considered as students who are given grants. So we didn’t have a union and didn’t have workers’ rights,” she told The Local.

The auxiliare programme was introduced in the Valencia in the school year of 2017-2018 so initially she put it down to teething problems.  

“But on the grapevine I started to hear about more and more people who hadn’t been paid. We tried emailing and calling, things that in our home countries would normally be sufficient to get answers, but none were forthcoming. So eventually I went to the Spanish teaching union and asked for help.”

She was advised to start a campaign to gather groups of auxilieres together to go to the Consejeria (education department) and fill out Hojas de Reclamacion (complaint forms).

“We didn’t want to walk out of classrooms and take strike action but we wanted to be heard and for guarantees that we would be paid and on time,” Tiesenga said.

“It seemed to work and for the rest of the school year payments were on time. Then in October, with a new batch of recruits, the delays and problems with payments started up again,” she said.

“I spent a lot of time collecting up those people who hadn’t been paid and then going to the consejeria and asking them to do their job. So instead of enjoying my free time living in Valencia, I’ve been learning an awful lot about how the programme is run and a deep understanding of the payment system.”

Messy bureaucracy

Beatriu Cardona, a representative from the STEPV teachers union in Valencia took on the plight of the Auxiliares and is able to explain where she thinks things went wrong.

“They are workers in our schools so it is important that they too had union representation. We’ve helped them on everything because they are foreigners, young and not familiar with the messy bureaucratic system that we have here in Spain,” she explained.

The problems with payment seemed to stem from Spain’s notoriously cumbersome bureaucratic process. “To open a bank account, you have to do so with either a passport or a NIE and of course because many of the Auxiliares were new to the country they opened it with their passport, which was acceptable at first but then the Ministry of Education changed the requirements and demanded that the bank account was linked to a NIE.”

“This sometimes takes weeks to get, because an appointment at the foreigners office is needed and then requires going in to the bank to change from your passport to your NIE, which is another process in itself, and one that some banks are reluctant to do,” she continued.

“The problem was compounded by the fact that the Auxiliares were not informed of this requirement directly. Instead of contacting them individually, a general email was sent to the director of studies at schools and it was on them to inform the assistants in their own schools, and unfortunately this didn’t always happen.”

Cardona explained that that wasn’t the only bureaucratic problem. “Because auxiliares are not classified as “teachers” but are considered as “students” who receive a “beca” – a government grant – their payment didn’t follow the usual process for teachers. Each individual monthly payment had to be assessed by Hacienda (The Treasury) department and this added just another layer of complication.”

To sum up: “Communications regarding the bureaucratic process just didn’t flow,” said Cardona.

What now?

But there is positive news. A meeting between the union rep, auxiliaries representatives and government officials, one from Valencia’s Education department and another from Hacienda, took place on Friday and the issue seems to have been resolved.

“The upshot is that the whole bureaucratic process has now been streamlined to accommodate auxiliaries and hopefully the communication flow will be better,” said Cardona who was at the meeting with Margarida Castellano from Education and Franscesc Gamero from the Treasury.

“They came to the meeting with clear solutions to offer and guaranteed that all outstanding payments would be made by February 7th”.

“I’ve been to lots of meetings like this and it was astonishing to see solutions brought to the table and put in place so hopefully things will run smoothly going forward,” Cardona admitted.

“It’s a great opportunity and we really do bring something to the children in terms of language learning,” insists Hammond Knight, who despite the problems he encountered, would encourage others to join the auxiliare scheme.

“The good this programme can do is extraordinary. After just a few weeks of spending time with the kids, their confidence levels in English has improved. That’s what keeps me going with it.”

For more information about the camapign visit the Auxiliares Sin Cobrar webpage here.

READ ALSO: OPINION: Why Valencia is the best place to live in Spain 

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LIFE IN SPAIN

How to lodge a formal complaint in Spain: Hoja de reclamación

If you’ve experienced bad service in Spain that didn’t meet expectations or bought a product that didn’t do what it promised to, then you may want to fill out an official complaint form in a bid to get your money back. Here’s how to go about it.

How to lodge a formal complaint in Spain: Hoja de reclamación

At some point or another everyone has probably experienced poor service and demanded to be reimbursed, whether it was because a bus had a broken air-con in 40C heat and was two hours delayed or you bought a product from a store that broke a month later. 

The first step is obviously to try and contact the company and sort out the issue amicably, but if this method isn’t producing any fruitful results, you may want to fill out an hoja de reclamación. 

This essentially translates as a ‘claim sheet’ and is an official complaint form you can lodge against a company to try and get reimbursed for your purchase.

READ ALSO: What to be aware of before opening a shared bank account in Spain

According to the Organisation of Consumers and Users (OCU) there are three reasons that a complaint form of this kind can help. It can:

  • Let the Consumer Administration know about your case, so they can investigate it.
  • Try and get the company to reach an agreement with you.
  • Sanction the company if it has breached any of its obligations.

What are the advantages of filling out an official complaint form?

Sometimes, just the threat of filling out an official complaint form is enough for the company to give in or propose an acceptable agreement.

Companies obviously don’t want to have lots of negative reviews and have complaints filed against them, so by filling one out, you are actually helping them improve their customer service. 

If the company still won’t do anything after you’ve submitted the form and later you go to settle the matter in court, having filled out the form will be proof that you tried to find a solution first.

Can you use this type of form for all companies?

The OCU explains that there are companies in some sectors that you shouldn’t fill out an hoja de reclamación for in the first place. Instead, you must contact the customer service department of the company itself.

This is true for banks, insurance providers, investment companies, telecommunications services, transportation companies, airlines and energy companies.

“If they do not respond in a month or respond but do not provide a satisfactory solution, then you should go down the specific dispute route that their company proposes,” the OCU states.

How do I fill out this type of complaint form?

If you are dealing with a business or service provider that does not have a specific claim channel such as a bar, store, supermarket or hotel, you can ask directly for the claim form.

The form has three copies – one for you, another for the administration and another that you must deliver to the establishment itself. 

Make sure to make photocopies of any supporting documents that serve as evidence such as contracts, tickets, invoices, guarantees, advertisements or photos.

Once completed, you must give your forms and evidence to the Municipal Consumer Information Office (OMIC) or by mail or by electronic means to the General Directorate of Consumption of your region.

Each region will have its own forms you need to complete. If you don’t ask for them from the business itself, you can find them online. The one for Catalonia can be found here, for Valencia here, for Andalusia here, and for Madrid here. For other regions, you can simply type into an internet search engine: hojas de reclamaciones + your region.

Once completed, your case will be studied and you may be presented with a resolution. If it is not successful but the administration finds that the company has breached any consumer regulations, it will open a case starting a disciplinary procedure that usually ends in a fine.

Remember that, it is not guaranteed that you will get compensation, even if the company ends up being fined.

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