Has being a Language Assistant in Madrid become accidental voluntary work?

Has being a Language Assistant in Madrid become accidental voluntary work? by zsoolt

This article was written by Eleanor Cobbe, published on 2nd January 2013 and has been read 5314 times.

Ellie Cobbe was at Leicester University, and spent her year abroad in Paris and Valencia. After graduation she went to Madrid as a Language Assistant, but after three months she and many other Assistants assigned to the Ministerio de Educación have yet to receive their pay (NB: this does not refer to those assigned to the Regional Government of Education in Madrid). Here's Ellie's side of the story...
Given the difficulties Spain is facing in the current economic climate, I’m sure none of us arriving here to submerge ourselves in the Spanish job market were expecting an easy ride. A little sense of humour might be needed. Perhaps even a little patience. But were thousands of Language Assistants expecting to grin and bear their way through 3 months of not being paid? I doubt it.

As a graduate of Modern Languages, the Language Assistant programme which for me was organised through the British Council seemed like the ideal way to spend another year abroad, developing not just my language skills but my CV along the way as well. I was assigned to the ‘Communidad’ of Madrid in April but had to wait a further five months (3 weeks before I was due to leave) for the exact location of my school. The Communidad of Madrid is experiencing a huge education overhaul, a test city in a country-wide bilingual school project which means that hundreds more assistants were recruited this year compared to last. To say that Madrid is crawling with native English speakers would be an understatement – the Language Assistant programme welcomes young people from not just the UK but also from Australia, America and Canada among others – but this year’s community are not the happy campers you might expect. Why? Because a large number of them are yet to be paid, 3 months after starting work, and the rest of us are worried about where our next pay cheque is coming from. 

Surprisingly, or perhaps not so to those who have lived in Spain before, this isn’t a new problem. Last year in Catalonia, assistants spent four months hounding the ministry before finally receiving their pay in the new year, at which point hundreds of Assistants had already left, unable to afford the gamble of waiting around to see if they would ever be paid. Frustratingly, the Ministerio in Madrid is reluctant to take any responsibility for the problem. After initially promising the first payment would be made by mid-November, their more recent communication indicated that the payment issues have been resolved and that the Assistants assigned to the Ministerio would be paid at some point in December – no exact date or explanation given. Clearly the hardest hit are the graduates and international assistants who do not have the Erasmus grant and student loans to live on in the meantime. The €1,500 savings they suggested we bring do not go far in three months, particularly in Madrid where rent and transportation cost the best part of €500/month. The Ministerio’s solution? Borrow from your parents – a suggestion which is hugely presumptuous and in most cases unhelpful.

Of course, no one is denying the huge advantages of the Language Assistant programme – to be able to come to a foreign country into an already established and structured post is a brilliant opportunity in anyone’s eyes. The fact that so far 99% of the assistants affected have stayed in Madrid testifies to this. But it is also impossible to overlook the fact that being paid for work which you have been contracted for and have carried out should be a given. The various organisers of this programme, who have recruited these native speakers from all over the world need to take some responsibility for what is happening in Spain at the moment. Despite the many fantastic experiences I’ve had in Spain, as the programme currently stands, I would strongly advise anyone considering being a Language Assistant next year to really think about whether they could afford to not be paid for 3-4 months before they sign themselves up.

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