Why (nearly) every English teacher is illegal

As an American, the terms “illegal workers” or “undocumented immigrants” are all too familiar. Every year the United States deports approximately 200,000 people for immigration-related offenses, so to me, the idea of moving to a foreign country and becoming an illegal worker was a concept that people in poorer countries struggled with. Had you asked me, I would have told you that there is no place in the world where Western people work illegally in large numbers.

But then I came to Taiwan.

It turns out that just about everybody who has taught English in Taiwan has done so illegally at one time or another. Nearly every foreign teacher I met had some story about the tricks of the buxiban cram schools, and more than a few had stories of running from the police. It seemed that the buxibans had a system all worked out where they knew when ‘surprise checks’ would occur and could keep the government off their backs. The teachers were just a part of the bigger system.

As I heard more stories, the question for me was always: why? Why was there this culture of illegal work that seemed to be promoted by both the teachers themselves—educated, Western, English-speaking young adults—and the buxiban cram schools that employed them? Was there an economic incentive to hire illegal teachers? Even more confusing was the question: what about the government? Where were they in all of this?

Since the first summer that I came to Taiwan, I’ve done a fair bit of research on this topic. My U.S. university sponsored me on a grant to come and research this phenomenon—one that I believe is unique in the world—in the summer of 2010.

What has been apparent to me since the beginning is that while everyone is aware of the risks inherent in working illegally in any country, it just doesn’t seem to be as big a deal here for foreign English teachers. Of the teachers that I talked to, both those teaching legally and those not, nearly all of them said that illegal English teaching in Taipei was common. Some even went so far as to say that it was more common than legal teaching.

That was exactly what I found. While my original research proposal had me qualifying teachers as either legal or illegal, I had to change mid-study because I couldn’t actually find anyone who wasn’t technically illegal during some part of their week. I ended up classifying them based on how illegal I deemed their situation to be. Were they just a little bit illegal or were they very illegal?

According to my research, foreign English teachers here are young Westerners with Bachelor’s degrees. In my personal, non-scientific estimation, that description would probably fit 90 percent of all buxiban teachers in Taipei. They are also woefully unprepared to be teaching English by any standard other than that of the Taiwanese government. Of the sample in my research, the mean age was 24 years old, and only two people I interviewed had degrees in education. The rest of the group ranged from finance to biology to photography majors, and only a few had had any kind of teaching experience before coming to Taiwan.

I also found that it is very possible, especially for a foreigner coming to Taiwan who was recruited abroad, to be working illegally without even knowing it, or to get here and realize that they had signed a contract for a job that is illegal for them to do. It is also easy, if not financially necessary, for English teachers to drift between legal and illegal work over the course of their workweek.

The specifics of why and how teachers working here are doing so illegally has several layers. There are three primary ways of being an illegal teacher in Taiwan. First, and most straightforwardly, is to be working on a visa that does not allow work. Most often these people are students who are studying in Taiwan and choose to teach on the side to supplement their income.

A second and very common way to teach illegally is to work at a branch of your buxiban that is not listed on your ARC. Many teachers either work at multiple branches in order to have fulltime jobs, or work at more than one buxiban when hours are scarce at their main school.

Then, of course, there’s kindergarten. In Taiwan it is illegal for foreigners to teach kindergarten. However, kindergarten jobs closely follow after-school buxiban jobs when it comes to availability and hours, so many if not most teachers have at least a few hours teaching very young children in kindergarten or preschool classes.

The teachers that I spoke to in my study did not express a preference for illegal work. In some cases they may have been bringing in slightly more money from their illegal work because of taxes, but many expressed frustration at the instability of their situations and the fact that they would have trouble documenting their work here since much of it had been under the table.

But while the specifics on the situations of the teachers display complex issues for foreign English teachers in Taiwan, the real question is what the effect of so much illegal work is on the quality of education that kids receive in buxibans.

When I spoke to cram school managers, I met with a mix of denial—“I’ve definitely never heard of that”—to complete honesty—“Of course we hire people to work illegally.” They expressed a variety of reasons why a cram school might hire illegally. These ranged from not wanting to do the paperwork, to needing short-term workers, to not wanting to pay taxes. At the end of the day, it seemed that the buxibans were hiring illegal teachers because they needed them, not because there was a large economic incentive to do so. In other words, schools didn’t seek out illegal teachers for the benefit of having them; instead they had illegal teachers because they just needed teachers.

The bottom line that I found over the course of my research was that buxibans are run as businesses, not as schools. When they need teachers, they hire teachers regardless of their legal work status, and regardless of their qualifications. The buxibans are serving their customers—they have determined that Taiwanese parents want foreign faces, so they find them and put them in classrooms. Likewise, when teachers need jobs, they go and get them. The work is there, so why wouldn’t they do it? It’s market economics, through and through.

The issue, and the illegality, lies where there is a failure on the part of the government to keep up with the push of internal markets and the needs of both citizens and non-citizens. Taiwan strives to be seen as an international society, yet the laws on the books don’t fit for a society that is pushing for widespread English literacy. The government solves this problem by pretending it isn’t happening.

But you may ask, who cares? If the teachers are teaching, the schools are making money, and the government doesn’t care, then why bother? The answer to this is that this system is unstable and generally does a poor job of teaching English. The widespread illegality within this market is a sign of a much deeper illness, and it is one that the Taiwanese government must acknowledge and deal with, rather than continue propping up a failing system of poor, private education.

Instead of recognizing the shortcomings of a system that has new, inexperienced teachers moving in and out of schools at light speed and has experienced teachers feeling unsupported and unmotivated (all to the detriment of student learning), the current government policy is to ignore the situation and let everyone keep teaching. While this policy makes it easy for foreigners to move in and out of the system quickly, from an educational standpoint it just doesn’t work.

At this point it seems that the system is unlikely to change without real action from the government. There are possibilities here for crafting a system that finds dedicated, motivated teachers and allows them to work enough hours to feel secure. Just look at Japan, where high-achieving foreign students actually compete for a chance to teach there through the JET program.

It comes as no surprise, especially to illegal teachers, that Taiwan’s English literacy rate needs a lot of work. When English teachers can hardly avoid working illegally, there must be a problem in the system. In this case, the problem is a live-and-let-live policy by the government that ignores the buxibans as a major educational supplement for the Taiwanese population and thus fails to contribute to their long-term effectiveness.