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Teachers face schoolhouse sweatshops in China

As China opens up to the world, public and private English-language schools are proliferating. While most treat their foreign teachers decently,  complaints about bad experiences in fly-by-night operations are on the rise. 
/ Source: The Associated Press

Tanya Davis fled Jizhou No. 1 Middle School one winter morning in March before the sun rose over the surrounding cotton fields covered with stubble from last fall's crop.

In the nine months Davis and her boyfriend had taught English at the school in rural north China, they had endured extra work hours, unpaid salaries and frigid temperatures without heating and, on many days, electricity.

Hearts pounding and worried their employer would find a pretext to stop them leaving, the couple lugged their backpacks, suitcase, books and guitar past a sleeping guard and into a taxi.

As they drove away, "the sense of relief was immense," said Davis, a petite, soft-spoken 23-year-old from Wales. "I felt like we had crossed our last hurdle and everything was going to be OK."

It's a new twist on globalization: For decades, Chinese made their way to the West, often illegally, to end up doing dangerous, low-paying jobs in sweatshop conditions. Now some foreigners drawn by China's growth and hunger for English lessons are landing in the schoolhouse version of the sweatshop.

In one case, an American ended up dead. Darren Russell, 35, from Calabasas, Calif., died under mysterious circumstances days after a dispute caused him to quit his teaching job in the southern city of Guangzhou. "I'm so scared. I need to get out of here," Russell said in a message left on his father's cell phone hours before his death in what Chinese authorities said was a traffic accident.

As China opens up to the world, public and private English-language schools are proliferating. While most treat their foreign teachers decently, and wages can run to $1,000 plus board, lodging and even airfare home, complaints about bad experiences in fly-by-night operations are on the rise. The British Embassy in Beijing warns on its Web site about breaches of contracts, unpaid wages and broken promises. The U.S. Embassy says complaints have increased eightfold since 2004 to two a week on average.

Though foreign teachers in South Korea, Japan and other countries have run into similar problems, the number of allegations in China is much higher because "the rule of law is still not firmly in place," said a U.S. Embassy official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

"A number of substandard English language teaching mills have sprung up, seeking to maximize profits while minimizing services," the U.S. House of Representatives International Relations Committee said in a recent report on Russell's case. These institutes have become virtual "'sweatshops' where young, often naive Americans are held as virtual indentured servants."

Davis said officials at her school in Hebei province piled on classes without compensation, dragged their feet on repairing leaks in her apartment and would deduct sums from her $625 monthly salary for random taxes and phone calls that were never made. These ranged from $30 to $85, she said.

She recalled nights without electricity when there was nothing to do but sit in candlelight.

The more "we let them get away with, the more they tried to get away with," said Davis, who now teaches piano in Beijing.

The number game
Numbers are hard to track. The Education Ministry said there was no record of how many language schools exist, because local governments administer them. Education bureau officials in Beijing, Guangzhou and Shanghai — China's major metropolises — did not respond to telephone and fax requests for information.

China is in the midst of a frenzy to learn English, spurred by its emergence as an economic powerhouse and the approach of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. The education system and privately run cram schools have ramped up to cater to the explosive demand for native English-speaking teachers.

"The market is huge," said Frank Dong, 38, manager of the American TESOL Institute in Beijing, which contracts about 100 teachers a year from outside China. "There is now a tremendous internal need that drives Chinese people to improve their English."

Wages offered range from $250 to $1,000 a month for an average of 20 hours per week, with overtime that varies. Housing is usually provided, and many schools promise about $1,000 in airfare home upon completion of a one-year contract.

Jobs offers teem on the Internet. On Dave's ESL Cafe, one of the most popular sites, more than 340 were posted in three months, ranging from positions in prosperous Zhejiang province in the east to the poverty-stricken grasslands of Inner Mongolia in the north.

But also on Dave's ESL Cafe is an anonymous warning from a teacher about a school in China's south.

"They will use you, abuse you, cheat you, and disrespect you," it says. "You will hear it all when they want you to sign the contract. Then after it's oh sorry that isn't in your contract or a bunch of excuses that go on and on."

There is no standard rule on contracts — some are in English, some in Chinese.

John Shaff, a graduate from Florida State University, said everything went according to his English-language contract at Joy Language School in the northeastern city of Harbin — until a disagreement over his office hours erupted into a shouting match on the telephone with a school official.

A few hours later, several men led by Joy's handyman showed up at his school-provided apartment, physically threatening him and cursing him in Chinese, said Shaff, 25. About 10 minutes later, they left, and soon, so did Shaff.

"They were all men who would have been formidable to fight," Shaff said in a telephone interview from San Francisco, where he now lives. The manager of the Joy chain did not respond to interview requests.

Like Shaff, Darren Russell had a disagreement with the manager of Decai language school in Guangzhou, where he had been promised 20 hours of classes a week. Instead, Decai had him teaching at two schools, where he put in up to 14 hours a day and oversaw 1,200 students, Russell's mother, Maxine Russell, said in a telephone interview from Calabasas.

Contracts unfulfilled
The school had troubles with foreign teachers. Two had quit by the time Russell showed up, and a former Decai employee, a Chinese woman who spoke on condition of anonymity, said she left because she was asked to recruit foreign teachers by offering attractive contracts that went unfulfilled.

In April 2005, sick from bronchitis and exhausted from the work hours, Russell told manager Luo Deyi he wanted her to lighten his work load. An argument ensued, Russell resigned and threatened to tell police Luo was operating illegally, the former employee said.

The school then moved him into a low-budget hotel. A week later he was dead. Police told Decai and Russell's mother that Darren had been killed in a hit-and-run traffic accident. The body was shipped to California.

Maxine Russell, however, said Chinese authorities could not provide consistent witnesses and a time of death. According to the congressional report, which was the outcome of a family request to look into the Russell case, a California mortician who handled Russell's body said he had suffered a blow to his head and his body did not have bruises and fractures consistent with a car accident. The mortician, Jerry Marek, is a former coroner.

While Maxine Russell and the former Decai employee say Russell was a beloved teacher, Luo, the manager, insists he was often absent from class and his "teaching methods failed to meet the requirement of the school and fit the students." She said he had been hired on probation, which he failed partly because of a drinking problem.

"It was very strange and irresponsible for them to blame us for their son's death," Luo said in a telephone interview.

Maxine Russell denies Darren drank while teaching at Decai.

For Davis, coming to China meant an opportunity to see the world outside of Ystradgynlais, her Welsh village of 1,000 people. She said she loved her students, but long hours, foreign food, an ant problem, leaky pipes and a toilet that wouldn't flush became too much.

In the end, the school said Davis and her boyfriend could forgo the last two months of their assignment, as had been verbally agreed after they signed their contracts in June 2005, but the principal changed his mind the day before their departure and refused to be reasoned with, Davis said.

Repeated calls to Jizhou school by the AP were not answered.

"We were miserable," Davis said. "We'd come all this way and there was this feeling of helplessness."

The couple left behind books, 200 DVDs and most of Davis' winter clothes _ now all too big for her because she had dropped 33 pounds from her 5'1" frame.

When they left the school that March morning, she said, they went to the railroad station to take a train to Beijing, but were so fearful they would somehow be made to stay that they instead hired a cab for the 200-mile trip.

On their way from school to the station, their cab driver happened to be playing the theme from "The Benny Hill Show" on tape.

"We just burst out laughing," Davis said.

They never collected their salary for their last month of work.