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

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
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.

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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