Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Teaching English in Taiwan isn't "well-paid", even compared to local salaries

I have the feeling this is going to be one of those posts I write once, and then link to from here on out every time the topic comes up in some stupid online debate. But I'm sick of writing it, so I'll write it one last time here and then can copy+paste forevermore.

First, a few things to make clear: yes, I acknowledge that the take-home pay of English teachers is considerably higher than that of many locals when you take hours worked into account, especially at the lower end of the qualifications-and-experience pool.  The same is true if you compare a foreign teacher to a local one, especially a local English teacher - which is, of course, unfair and native-speakerist. I'm not denying that.

Second, I'm coming at this as a professional, so that is of course going to color how I see wages in the TEFL field (I've started refusing to call it an "industry" because it is a field of education. Some private English schools do good work, some are parasites, but I won't descend to the lowest common denominator).

Finally, I realize that these factors are vary widely by country and region. I'm coming at this from the standpoint of a professional who expects a salary floor, a fundamental base idea of what pay should be, no matter where I go - just as any professional would.

And, finally, of course, I do realize we are much better off than your average Southeast Asian worker in Taiwan. That goes without saying, and their fight for a better life should not be ignored, either.

All that aside, English teaching in Taiwan really, truly doesn't pay that well, even compared to local salaries, and I'd like to explore the reasons why:

We don't get the benefits Taiwanese workers (often) do, including labor protections or even employers who follow the law

Here are some things I don't get that most Taiwanese workers do (and I'm a professional, I can only imagine it is worse for others):

- Paid Chinese New Year vacation - which is actually a legal requirement, even for hourly workers, but good freakin' luck getting it. Not even my comparatively good employers offer that.

- An annual bonus that is at or near 1-2 months' salary - I do get a bonus from one of my employers and it's appreciated. Truly. But your average Taiwanese can expect an extra month, or two, of salary. I haven't known many English teachers who got that outside of the universities and perhaps the public schools. 

- Paid leave - I'm willing to make this trade-off because I get more leave than your average worker, but still less than your average public school or university teacher. That said, it would be nice to have leave factored into a salary package.

- A stable income - one thing I do want is a fair salary with acceptable working conditions ("we own you" cannot be a prerequisite for mediocre pay). In Taiwan either you can earn more in take-home pay by the hour but get no benefits, or you can earn a crap salary and be your supervisor's butt monkey. Neither is appealing. I realize Taiwanese also have this problem, but compared to most of our home countries, this is a problem.

Plus two more that I do get, but most English teachers don't:

- Labor insurance - I had to fight for this, but I got it. I have heard varying reports on the legality of schools not offering lao bao, from "that's illegal, they MUST offer it" to "the employee can choose not to enroll but the school cannot refuse to enroll them". Either way, you should be getting lao bao, and you probably aren't. 

- The ability to change fields/industries - if they can get hired, a local can switch to another job in another field. Without 2 years' experience in that field or a Master's, a foreigner can't. Either we teach English until we get permanent residence, or we come in with those credentials already, or we teach whether we want to or not unless a loophole can be found. This doesn't seem directly related to pay, but it is: it's hard to find ways to increase your earnings if you are stuck in a field you may not want to be in, which doesn't actually pay all that well.

For professionals, the comparison is jarring

A lot of people who say "but we are paid so much better" are comparing those 22-year-olds above (and ignoring all the benefits their young Taiwanese counterpart enjoys that they don't). That's fine, if you are also someone who in any other circumstance would be earning an entry-level salary.

I, however, am not comparing myself to a twentysomething local who hasn't risen very high at work yet, because I'm not a twentysomething and I have risen. Looking at what I earn in relation to an entry-level Taiwanese worker is not a valid comparison.

I'm comparing myself to the thirty- and forty-something professionals I know in Taiwan - and I know quite a few as I've taught Business English for many years - and I have to say, my salary does not stack up. They can afford to buy apartments and drive nice cars as well as take good vacations. I could perhaps afford one of those (the car would not be my choice, of course). Right now, because foreigners can't easily get mortgages unless they are married to locals, I choose the nice vacations. But compared to the people I actually spend time with, I am not that well paid and have very little salary security. My engineer, finance/fund manager, sales rep, accountant and doctor friends and students do better than I do - not that I've asked my students their salaries, but because it's not that hard to figure out when they tell me about their lives.

Once you make that comparison, things don't look so great. 

Something like 90% of the teaching jobs in Taiwan are a joke

For someone looking to make real money and live a proper thirtysomething life - and I'm no materialist, I just mean you can eat real food and be confident that you can pay your rent without living in a crap-box - only the thinnest sliver of the TEFL pie in Taiwan is worth looking at. I've unsubscribed from most job boards with Taiwan jobs, not only because I'm not looking but also because, in the years I've been on them, I've seen exactly one job I would apply for. Maybe two or three if I were looking and needed to land something decent. Those are not good odds.

Better jobs do exist, but they don't come along frequently and they tend not to advertise much, because they don't have to. ITI-TAITRA (at least before the Ministry of Education lowered their pay scale), CES Taipei and its sister school UKEAS, LADO Management Consultants, Cambridge Taipei (I have heard), British Council and maybe a few other places (not sure about LTTC, for example - anyone?) pay pretty well, all things considered. Then there are the public school, university and (very good) international school jobs if you are qualified. Every once in awhile a more typical buxiban will pay above the standard rate, but they don't seem - from my outside perspective - like great places to work. My former "management consulting" firm, in scare quotes for a reason, also pays above the standard rate but I would never, ever recommend them to anyone with a shred of sense.

At these better jobs you are more likely to start at around $750-$800/hour (but you'll need the qualifications to get the higher rate) and go up from there - $1000 or even $1500 isn't unheard-of. Salaried positions are all over the place in terms of pay, but $70,000/month with perhaps a housing allowance isn't unheard-of either, though it could be lower.

That is a very, very tiny sliver of the market to choose from.

The rest, honestly? My first impulse was to call them "trash" but I'm sure someone will get mad, and I can see why people wouldn't want their job to be called "trash", but honestly...

Not great.

University pay? Also a joke (depending on the hours you are expected to put in)

Sure, you get an annual bonus and paid vacations, but your average university job seems to pay between NT$50-$70,000/month. That's...not good. Back when it was easy to get such jobs for a few hours a week it was a pretty sweet deal, and I think fair considering how much extra prep work one has to put into a good university course. Now that they pay those rates but expect full-time work, including meetings and all manner of extra work like judging those stupid speech contests, it's just not a great option.

There are no local opportunities for good professional development

Want a CELTA? In Taiwan? You're in luck - you get to pay for airfare, accommodation and food, the course itself and miss out on four weeks of pay because it isn't offered in Taiwan (yet). Lucky ducky you!!!!

You get to pay that yourself, because no school, not even the good ones, will sponsor you. Fun times!! Woo!!

Want a Delta? You can either do the same damn thing but for even more money and time, or you can do it online. Good luck finding a tutor for Module 2. I know like 10 people who could do it. Most are busy and one is leaving the country soon. 

Have fun parting with all of your hard-earned cash and then some!

(It's worth it, but still, have fun paying all that money out of pocket on your joke wages)

So much depends on your skin color

A lot of the estimates of teacher pay in Taiwan are based on the idea of a white native speaker teacher. However, I have friends who are Indian, Black or of Asian heritage who are quite clear that they are consistently offered lower salaries and fewer raises. Many are made to feel lucky to have a job at all, and many get completely inappropriate complaints that clearly stem from racism, which hurts their performance reviews and results in lower pay overall. It is important to take this into account and not just estimate the salary for Jimbo McBlueeyes.

Estimates of pay are all over the place, but I'd gather the lower ones are more accurate

I've heard "NT$65-100,000/month", I've had someone tell me they made about $51,000/month and someone say they had trouble cracking $45,000. The starting pay for 22-year-old Jimbo McBlueeyes is usually NT$600/hour, but I've seen lower. (I make more - a lot more - but I'm the exception. If you are good at what you do and get a Delta you too can fight with me for that tiny little sliver of the market. Fun times for all.)

If you make $600/hour and work 20 hours/week, you'll make about $48,000 before taxes depending on the month - remember how many hours you work in a week may not be up to you, and does not include all of the work you actually do. If you work 25 hours a week you'll make about $60,000 before taxes. Get a tiny raise (I've seen 5 and 10 NT raises! I almost quit over one!), make a tiny bit more. Five years later maybe after 5 10 NT raises you're making $650 - whoopty freakin' doo - and you get $52-65,000 before taxes, unless you get some certifications and go after that thin sliver of job market mentioned above, or get lucky with a better offer (it happens - I know someone at American Eagle who makes $750/hour).

All that is to say, it sure seems to me that for the vast majority of teachers, the lower end of the pay estimates are more accurate and you have to fall into some good luck to earn more. Those estimates are, to be frank, not that great. And remember, once you do hit a more professional level, your Taiwanese counterparts are often now making well over $100,000/month depending on the profession. You go from making more than your local peers to making far less.

I'll finish this section up with an anecdote: when I applied for permanent residence, the immigration officer who looked at my paperwork actually commented that I make very good money, and most foreigners' income tax documents she sees show much lower pay. That could be due to the buxibans cheating, but it's probably also in part due to pay being lower than people would generally like to admit. 

I'm not sure estimates of Taiwanese pay are that accurate either

Everyone says the average wage in Taiwan is around NT$30,000/month, and I do know people who are offered that joke of a salary or less. But, if so many people are making that, and logically speaking so many are then making less, how is it that people can buy apartments and cars, take vacations to Japan etc.? I realize part of it is generational wealth, part of it is being able to save everything if you live with your parents. But some of it, at least some, is almost certainly due to the rampant cheating on taxes that most Taiwanese companies do. If your employer cooks the books, your salary is likely reported as lower than it is - or maybe you have your own thing going and you under-report or don't report certain incomes - which makes the national average seem lower than it is.

Cost of Living, Moving and Traveling

The first one affects Taiwanese too: the cost of living has gone up, but pay hasn't in the last decade. I came here a decade ago (almost exactly). The pay then for English teachers was more or less exactly what it is now, but it does cost more to live (don't believe the government line about inflation being stable or even negative - they lumped in a huge decrease in fuel costs along with rises in everything else and called it even. If you are wondering why the official line is that inflation is not a problem when your rent, food, sundry and transport costs have gone up, that's why).

The second is that, honestly, teaching English here especially in the most common jobs pays better, especially compared to cost of living, than waitressing or what have you back home. Sure. But you are still basically spending thousands of dollars to uproot your life, move to a new place, settle in, get an apartment etc. all for what amounts to a wage that isn't that much higher than if you'd just stayed in your own country with your inexperienced self. People say you can make good money - no, if you do it, you do it because you want to go abroad, not for the money. The money, as I've shown, is not great.

Finally, as much as schools would like to crow that your visits home are not their problem - which is to a certain extent true - it would be smart to ruminate on the fact that if you want foreign English teachers, you've really got to understand that they have ties in their home countries and like any normal human being they want to maintain those ties. It would be wise to factor in the idea that people might want to see their parents every couple of years or be able to be there for grandparents in their old age. For older professionals, being their for your parents' old age is also a key factor. Schools are not obligated to consider this, but if they want to attract more talented people, it would be wise to consider it when putting together their salary offers. Visits home cost money, and if you have good reason to visit home every year or every two years, that can eat a huge chunk out of your savings.

It's yet another iteration of the universal truth that if you pay peanuts, you get monkeys. If you happen to get someone better, they won't stay long because they want more than peanuts. It goes for Taiwanese workers as well as foreign teachers.

Considering these costs in light of what teaching jobs actually pay, from a financial perspective teaching is not actually a great choice. You do it because you want to.

That doesn't mean, however, that you don't deserve to earn a good wage for doing something you want to do.


Matt Stone said...

I can't add much or comment about teaching English in Taiwan (as I neither live there or teach English), so this is a slightly tangential thought.

When the English speaking world does a Google/Bing search these days, quite often it's the relevant Wikipedia page that's first up, or very high up, in search results.

And one of the areas where Taiwan (the nation as a whole) needs help is with its Wikipedia entries.

Unfortunately, if you look on Wikipedia, many Taiwan pages suffer from basic grammatical/spelling errors; lack of meaningful content, or any decent citations/references, etc.

Suggestion: would it be a good exercise in English classes, to encourage students to search through the pages of WP and do some basic fixing on articles about Taiwan?

More ambitiously, once they get the hang of things, it's really not that hard to start up completely new articles from scratch. They just need to make sure there are some good solid references (mainstream newspapers or entries in Google Books are ideal) and the article will usually pass muster from Administrators – even if on apparently trivial subjects (a certain degree of notability is essential though).

Perhaps these could be interesting exercises, and beneficial for Taiwan as well?

There is a WP Project specialising in Taiwan, it could use some help. Registered editors can join at:


Just a thought. A tangential one.

Jenna Lynn Cody said...

Interesting thought! If I taught general English I'd probably have a project like this going (though I am so admittedly biased that it'd have to be somewhat hands-off). It isn't an appropriate choice for my IELTS or Business English classes, but someone doing a less specialized course might really go in for something like this!

Matt Stone said...

Bias isn't a problem at all, every WP Editor is probably biased one way or another, no matter what the subject matter.

It's just a matter of backing up any assertions with citations from credible sources.

Food for thought anyway!

Jenna Lynn Cody said...

Oh no, like, I hate the KMT with a burning passion. I couldn't write about them even remotely objectively. On this blog I don't pretend to but on Wikipedia I don't think such obviously subjective edits would last long.

Bias is a problem by the way. One thing I do do is when I see a page on some Taiwan-related issue that refers to "Taiwan, China" (a real thing) or "Taiwan (Province of China)" I get rid of it and change it to simply "Taiwan" or "Taiwan (ROC)". But the fact that it has to be changed in the first place is evidence that bias is a problem and a lot of the facts presented are not exactly credible.

Matt Stone said...

I'll keep an eye out for that one.

I have been adding "(Taiwan)" to "Republic of China", which many English-speaking readers would just think means "Mainland China", or "Communist China".

Unknown said...

To post that it is impossible to get citizenship is a lie.

Jenna chooses not to do so.

Over 110,000 expats have applied for ROC Citizenship since 2000.

Jenna Lynn Cody said...

I actually can't find where I mentioned citizienship in this post.

But, when I write about getting citizenship, I am very careful to say not "it is impossible" but something like "the hurdles to getting it are impossible for me to cross". Why? Because it is theoretically possible, yes, but the government has purposely made it as difficult as possible because they don't actually want foreigners to become citizens (interestingly - or perhaps not for the until-now-in-charge KMT - Chinese citizens do not have such difficulties). There is an unfair double standard in which Taiwanese can have citizenship in other countries, but foreigners must give up their citizenship to become Taiwanese. That is not acceptable.

Why is it impossible for me, then, when a pathway exists? Because like most foreigners in Taiwan, I have a family back home! I may need to return to care for them someday! Just last year, I had to spend 5 months at home taking care of my dad because my mom passed away (we knew it was going to happen, and I had actually planned to come well in advance and stay for at least a year, but it didn't work out that way). Without American citizenship I wouldn't have been allowed to stay that long in the country of my birth. My dad has a heart condition, and my in-laws are in their seventies.

I can't give up American citizenship to get Taiwanese citizenship. This is family duty - yes, I do have a sense of family duty although I am willing to say 'no' - not really a choice. It is impossible for me to clear that hurdle.

Also, it is unfair to set the hurdle in the first place.

When I write about citizenship I am careful to say it that way, or make it clear that it is not "objectively" impossible, it's just so onerous as to be impossible for me, and a lot of other foreigners with family back home. As well as deeply unfair and yes, racist, of the government to purposely make it difficult for non-Chinese.

So please, before you make comments like this, read what I write. Otherwise, feel free to not read at all. I do not appreciate my words being twisted.

Unknown said...

Jenna Lynn Cody Yeah, I am a foreigner who is a professional and yet does not get a lot of the benefits of professional employment that locals do (I would like to be a local but I can't get citizenship without crossing an impossible bar, either).

this is what you wrote on the FB discussion.

Impossible is the word you used.

Unknown said...

"Just last year, I had to spend 5 months at home taking care of my dad because my mom passed away (we knew it was going to happen, and I had actually planned to come well in advance and stay for at least a year, but it didn't work out that way). Without American citizenship I wouldn't have been allowed to stay that long in the country of my birth. My dad has a heart condition, and my in-laws are in their seventies. "

This is also untrue. An ex American friend of mine with ROC ID went back to the USA for similar reason and was granted a special visa with long term stay.

Standard visitor visa is for 6 months stay and you can apply for longer stays.

Unknown said...

How is it racist when it applies to all foreigners? Or are you special snowflake?

There are many westerners who got citizenship in Taiwan and they wrote about it on other expat forums. Also PRC Chinese lose their PRC citizenship as they cancel their ID and Household registration so they cannot have both ROC and PRC.

Jenna Lynn Cody said...

It's racist because Taiwanese can have dual citizenship but foreigners cannot, in Taiwan, unless they are Chinese spouses (so it does not apply to all foreigners). The racism isn't different foreigners with different origins, but all foreigners vs. the laws for Taiwanese. They prefer that non-Chinese people not become citizens so they set bars that are too high for many to cross.

That is racist. Also, unacceptable.

I said "an impossible bar". The bar exists, but it is impossible for me. I may have to return far longer-term in the future and when I was home last year, I had to work to support myself which visitors cannot do - a visitor visa won'r be enough.

So yes, it is an impossible bar for me.

Jenna Lynn Cody said...

Since this is not related to my actual post I will not publish future comments on this topic.

Jenna Lynn Cody said...

I'll apply, basically, when the same laws apply to me as to Taiwanese, and the laws are not racist. When the double standard is gone.

Bohling said...

I just want to comment about teaching English here. This is what I do. I think I do it well.
The only school I know of that pays for Chinese New Year and other national holidays is American Eagle. They also give you a week paid vacation. It is half-time, but it is something. Everything else, is it really law? Even if it is (I am questioning your statement, not doubting it) no one is really afraid of any ministry here, so, there is that.

What I find most frustrating about teaching here, despite the fact the kids don't want to do and the parents are not going to make them study or practice, yet expect a certain level of fluency. Is the beloved contracts. These are worth noting. The words mean nothing. The dates mean nothing. All the contract really does is spell out what you will not get paid for doing (which at some schools is half you working hours) like grading papers, lesson plans, decorations, break times, etc.

Also, employers do not report exact wages to the labor or tax bureaus. (one potential employer stated they would not pay health insurance since the job is considered part time) This is painful if you are trying to get your APRC. I brought this issue up on a forum, and was told to go to the labor bureau and report that. HA! Obviously this person has never went to the labor bureau. The last time I was there, I was told point blank there was nothing they would do. I asked if I had any rights, my answer? "You have the right to leave." Pretty much sums that up. (i was there about a dispute over taxes and health/labor insurance with my employer at the time)

To touch on some of the comments here, I was under the impression that only PRC citizens could achieve ROC citizenship. The highest foreigners could go was APRC. This is specifically true for non-Asian foreigners. Despite what the law may or may not say on the matter, anyone who has dealt with any immigration official anywhere knows...its all up to whoever holds the stamp.

Jenna Lynn Cody said...

I've heard from several trustworthy sources - since the laws themselves are so damn unclear - that yes, we are supposed to get paid CNY just like other hourly workers in Taiwan are supposed to get (they too don't always, though).

In terms of citizenship, I know non-PRC citizens who have gotten it here. You can get it, but you have to give up your original citizenship first (they may change the law so you can give it up later)...an impossible bar for most foreigners who have family back home or other reasons why they need to keep their original citizenship (for example, if I moved to the US to care for my dad, I would need to work because I don't poop gold). Either way the double standard, because Taiwanese do not have this rule imposed on them, is unacceptable.

Unknown said...

To my knowledge you are not only correct but this trend is also true in other nations:
"Teaching English in [nation] isn't "well-paid", even compared to local salaries"
For example, in Thailand a local thirty-something engineer gets about double the salary of a foreign teacher.

And like in Taiwan, non-local teacher salaries have have been relatively stagnant for about the last 20 years.
So where have foreign teacher salaries increased?

** Re: citizenship, I disagree with your use of the term "racist/ism".
It has nothing to do with race Jenna, but rather it is a matter of nationalism.
All "-isms" should be "wasims"

Besides no work permit, what advantages are there in Americans becoming citizens of Taiwan?

Jenna Lynn Cody said...

No, it's racism.

Nationalism needn't be ethnic - civic nationalism allows for an ethnically diverse nation where we are brought together by common goals for our country. The Taiwanese government has deliberately designed the system so that if you have Taiwanese ancestry (but are born and raised abroad) or are Taiwanese, it is no problem to hold dual nationality. But, everybody else has only limited options for getting in - based on their race (non-Chinese). It's racism because the ONLY nationality exempt from this are Chinese (from China) - a Chinese spouse of a Taiwanese citizen does not need to give up Chinese citizenship in order to become Taiwanese. Why? Race. Whereas if you are white, black, Hispanic, Arab, Indian. Southeast Asian? Got to give up your old nationality. The ONLY division here is one of race. The point is to keep people of other races from becoming citizens...I suspect they don't care so much about me - the rare and relatively prosperous whitey - but designed to keep out Southeast Asians.

Also keep in mind who made these rules. Not the "we embrace diversity" DPP (though I'd like them to put their money where their mouth is and make visa/work/citizenship rules more welcoming) but the "We are all Chinese, this is a part of the great Chinese nation" KMT. There is 100% absolutely no question a race angle to it.

That is absolutely racism. Not everything needs to be an -ism but I'm sorry, you are wrong. This is absolutely one example where it is true.