Sunday, August 25, 2013

Of Typhoons and Fighting Back: Consumer Rights in Taiwan

Several years ago, I took a series of one-on-one Chinese classes at TLI (Taipei Language Institute), and while my teachers were fine (not particularly trained, but nice people and I did learn from them - mostly I got in some good speaking practice). I didn't continue the course for a few reasons. Because I didn't like that my two hour block was split between two teachers - I liked them both but I really just wanted one teacher so we could progress more. Because I was not allowed to take any classes off and make them up (if I couldn't take a class, it was considered forfeit), but at one point one of my teachers took a few classes off and I got a substitute (again, really hard to progress that way), meaning she could take time off, but not me. Because at one point a teacher just didn't show up and I waited 20 minutes or so before telling TLI, and they got irritated at ME - apparently I should have told them almost immediately so they could find me a quick substitute and not have to do a make-up class (again, how does this help me progress?).

And finally, because one of my classes was postponed due to a typhoon day. When I asked when the make up would be, I was told there would not be one. I asked, then, when I would get my refund as I'd paid for two hours of class (it was an hourly rate) that I would never receive. I was told there would not be one. 

My teachers seemed genuinely surprised that I was upset by this: "but we're teachers, we're guaranteed certain earnings! It's not fair to us to not get paid because there was a typhoon!"

Okay. I mean, office workers and others get that courtesy. You don't have to go in to work but you still get paid. So I understood why they might feel that way, and why the school might back them up.

But this wasn't office work, and it wasn't a course for which you paid tuition for the entire term. This was paid by the hour. As I saw it, I paid for two hours of a service (Chinese class) and as such, I was owed the two hours I'd paid for. Otherwise I'd paid for something I'd never get. It would be like paying a plumber to come to your house on Tuesday, but he's sick that Tuesday, so he takes your money but says he's not coming. Or paying someone to translate your resume into Chinese by September 1st, but they go out of town unexpectedly until September 5th, don't translate your resume and don't return your money. 

As a teacher myself, if there's a typhoon day I don't get paid. I mean, we make up the class. I always get the money eventually. But I don't get it right then, for work performed that day. Is it totally fair? No, but you deal with it because that's what it means to work this kind of job. If it was so important to me I'd go looking for a salaried position, and I notably have not done so.

And my students? If there's a typhoon day, they get a make-up class. I have a student who pays me for ten classes at a time. Last week our Wednesday class (#9) didn't happen because of Typhoon Trami. If I'd then said, "well, #9 was cancelled due to typhoon, next week is #10" she would simply decline to be my student any longer. I teach her privately, but I don't know of any English school that would have any other policy. They'd lose too much business.

Taiwanese learners of English who take one-on-ones don't stand for that sort of bullshit, so why should I? I left TLI, figuring it was one bad experience and I'd just go elsewhere. I still wasn't fond of Shi-da, so after another tumultuous semester there, I decided not to return. I happen to think the most common "methodologies" (if you can call them that) used by teachers at MTC are atrocious, even outright wrong from a language teaching/Applied Linguistics perspective.

It didn't occur to me to complain, because I didn't realize something: typhoon day policies like TLI's are illegal. If you pay for a service by the hour, you are to receive that service or receive a refund. 

So I drifted for awhile, and finally signed up for one-on-one classes at Chinese Culture University. Again I liked my teacher, my class wasn't split in half, she helped me learn some Taiwanese, and I was mostly happy. I was told that in the event of a typhoon, there would be a refund or a make-up. Yay!

About halfway through the course, right after Typhoon Soulik (which did not affect my class), they sent me an e-mail saying that the rules had changed - in Chinese - "for the next term, in the event of a typhoon cancellation, there will be no make-up and no refund" the e-mail said. "I know we promised you this term that you would get a make-up or refund, so if there is a typhoon cancellation, we will help you to make it up. For the next term, however, the new rules will apply. We are sorry for the inconvenience."

So I wrote back (in Chinese, badly), saying "unless this rule is changed there won't be a second term. I've already told you that I lost money from TLI for this reason, and I refuse to accept that this may happen again. If I sign up anyway, your management may feel that this rule is fair and acceptable, but it truly is not. I don't blame you" (the admin who wrote the e-mail - not her fault) - "but I hope you will pass my message on to the boss to let him know that this policy is not fair to students and Chinese Culture University will lose students and revenue as a result. I simply cannot accept it and I am not prepared to negotiate."

She wrote back to say she understood, and would pass on my message. Nothing happened. I posted about it on Facebook - yet another school off my list because I could not abide this policy.  

A few people replied - and I found out that this policy is, in fact, quite illegal. 

I took it up with the government, sending in a complaint (in Chinese, badly), with screenshots of the e-mail I received. They sent me a letter within a week to say they'd received it and, as it was the jurisdiction of the Department of Education (or somesuch) that they'd sent it on to them. I didn't have to do anything. I got a letter from the Education department saying they were looking into it and to sit tight (but in Chinese Bureaucratese, of course). 

Then two weeks pass. Nothing. I begin to worry that CCU has some sort of 'guanxi' or relationships in the government and so they got them to just drop this complaint from a small fry like me. Damn it. I didn't really want to write an editorial or something like that, I just wanted it taken care of. I was assured again that the policy was quite illegal. One friend noted that his school used to have such a policy, but they had to change it to offer make-ups as students complained and the government came down on them.

On the last day of my course, Chinese Culture University gave me a final letter, again in Chinese Bureaucratese. I could barely read it; we read it together as a part of my class (my teacher was well aware that I was complaining and said she agreed with me). It said, after three or so bullshit points (they always do that), that in the case of a typhoon, there will be no refund but I will be able to schedule a make-up. 

Okay. That's fair! 

I haven't signed up with CCU again yet, as I can't really take an evening class right now, but the teacher who teaches Taiwanese is only free after 4:30pm. I want to see how my September schedule might work out before resigning. I couldn't help but note, though, that on my last day I was not handed a feedback form or a sign-up form. I was not contacted at all. It was done, and I couldn't tell if this was just them not providing good follow-up, them just assuming I'd take the initiative, or them thinking I still would not sign up for a new term...or them trying to indirectly tell me that I may have won the fight, but they didn't really want me as a student anymore, so to kindly not return. I have no way of knowing.

I just wanted to share this to let you all know: if you take a Chinese one-on-one class and your school (if you take it through a school) tells you that you won't get a make-up or refund in the event of a typhoon, that it is illegal, that you can complain through official channels, and that you absolutely should.  It's not even that hard to do.

Why they think they can have policies like this is beyond me - the Taiwanese would never stand for it. Do they think foreigners are dumb (I don't think so, but I have to wonder sometimes)? Do they think they can get away with it because there aren't as many Chinese schools as there are English schools, and less competition means they can get away with more crap (see: airlines)? Or do they think this is actually a fair policy (I can't believe they do)?

I don't know the answers to these questions, but I do know this. The state of "getting things done" in Taiwan is not totally broken. Consumer rights exist (although property rights don't seem to) and even if you're just one person you can sometimes get someone to enforce laws that are on your side. DO complain. DO make a fuss. DO stand up for yourself. DON'T let them steal your money.

1 comment:

cathy said...

Yay, I'm glad that worked out for you! Sorry you had to go through so much trouble though.