Taiwanese Business Ethics in the ESL Industry

Daniel Miller Picked My Brain

To promote my app and website more, I've been very active on LinkedIn this past week. I based my invitations on mutual connections; and, since most of my initial connections were Taiwanese, most of my new connections have been, too. I haven't marketed anything yet. I first wanted to find some material for my next blog posts.

That's when I came across a post from Daniel Miller. His group, Pagoda Projects, Ltd., and All Hands Taiwan recently held a panel on Taiwanese post-teaching careers. I didn't attend the talk, since I no longer live in Taiwan. I did, however, post a tangential comment to his wall post:
"I ended up as a curricular director for another ESL firm. The work was fine. Taiwanese higher-ups, not so much. They basically broke every labor law protecting foreign workers to line their pockets. It would be interesting to hear how they handle situations regarding business ethics and employment law in Taiwan's corporate landscape."
Not long after, Daniel Miller messaged me directly. He was interested in hearing my take on that very topic. I shared a bit of my background. He described his specific interests. So, I told him that, if he could some up with some questions, I'd answer them as best I could. What follows are his questions, with my responses below them:

DM: Why did you come to Taiwan and in what capacities did you work?

I moved to Taiwan in late 2010 after getting an English teaching job in Sanchong. I had taught English and Spanish for a few years prior to then. My original plan was to teach myself Mandarin and to attend a graduate program in Chinese philosophy. I was very active with a group of philosophy professors in Warp, Weft, and Way back then. Not long after I relocated to Taipei (well, Sanchong, Xinbei first), Steve Angle invited me to a philosophy colloquium at a Taiwanese university. That convinced me, finally, that academic philosophy was not for me. However, I still wanted to learn Mandarin, to provide a proof of concept for self-education in a foreign language.

To stay on the island and earn a sustainable income, I taught English for a little over two years. I was okay with students, but really not okay with buxiban business practices. The places I worked for were small and desperate for growth, so they made all sorts of ridiculous accommodations to retain students. I learned very quickly that most buxiban owners are bullshit artists. As I learned more about SLA (second language acquisition), it became apparent that they weren't all that knowledgeable, either. That made it easier over time to build my own curricula and test them on their students. For me, buxiban work was a side project in applied linguistics. It wasn't how I planned to live long-term.

As the buxiban work dried up (since the smaller places were drying up in the early 2010's), I started hunting for other jobs. I had accrued enough work experience to satisfy Taiwan's legal requirement to pursue non-teaching work. That's when I interviewed at AMC's Tutor4U (AMC空中家教) and landed work as a proofreader.

DM: What was your experience working in that first job?

For about a month, I just proofread materials and watched the blind lead the blind. No one there really had any direction. Most of them were cobbling together lessons from curricula that they half-remembered. They didn't even design PowerPoint presentations well. The problem was simple: None of them had ever taught themselves a language. I was self-taught in Spanish and Mandarin at that point. I'd learned what works by osmosis and some academic SLA reading. Apparently, my comments and recommendations, when implemented, were well-received. Bit by bit, I became the de facto curricular director.

Fortunately, as time went on, they hired more competent people. Some were very impressive, and they're people I still respect professionally.

Then, the punitive measures toward online instructors started. I mean, nonpayment for instructional incompetence or absence is one matter. But, they were doing things like half-paying teachers for student no-shows. They were fining teachers for not blocking the chat feature on the Cisco Webex platform they used. The reason? The sales department was selling the same service at different prices, and customers who paid more were complaining. So, instead of changing their shitbag behavior, they decided to shift the blame for their immoral practices onto instructors.

A Picture of Tutor4U's Turnover
As you could imagine, turnover of foreign instructors was immense. The instructors weren't contracted legally, so the company couldn't force them to work. So, lots of people came, passed interviews, taught a few classes, got dinged for some immoral BS, and abandoned Tutor4U. They didn't have any legal recourse, either. For most of them, filing a grievance was a tacit admission of violating immigration law. The higher-ups knew this, and exploited this fact to the fullest.

Even Jill Tseng, the former academic director who hired me, was caught cashing unclaimed paychecks from instructors. She was promptly fired, but given a (let's say bronze) parachute. The guy who was doing her job, anyway, Charlie Wang, had since taken her place months earlier. Removing corrupt dead weight? Putting Charlie, an advocate for instructors who saw the problems just as I did, in the director's seat? All were positive steps, I thought, but they weren't that effective in the end.

The turnover caught up to them. As a result, they were gradually taking my curricular design team and imposing instruction hours on them to fill their scheduling gaps. That, to put it lightly, pissed me off. At the same time that they were growing, they were hobbling the lesson production team. Logic was of no avail. Who cares how many hours you book if you don't have any content to teach? I took what measures I could to automate some processes. However, my programming chops were nil back then. I was only good with spreadsheets and macros. That helped get some work out of the way. But, even with all of my knowledge now, nothing was going to save them. They were going to sacrifice lesson quality or sacrifice profits, and I knew where the heads leaned.

Toward the end of my second year, I decided I'd had enough. The hiring manager, Jack Huang, suffered a nervous breakdown from (unsurprisingly) work-related stress, and so he was absent for a month or more. On one evening in that period, I took evidence of Tutor4U's illegal hiring practices, a copy of their illegal instructor contract, and a few other bits and pieces for the Labor Bureau. That same day, as part of my housekeeping duties, I deleted a ton of "shell" PowerPoint documents. The lessons for them had been made, but these shells just sat in a folder, making it hard to access the newer shells for upcoming lessons. Ironically, they were in a panic over that the next day, and found out that I'd also uploaded company documents to an offsite personal account.

Peter Hsu (胥宏達), a man who cares
more about soup than employees' rights.
Charlie sat me down and explained the deal. The higher-ups (mainly, the owner Peter Hsu and sales director) were pissed, and Charlie was upset that I had acted without talking to him first. Hsu expected a handwritten resignation letter and for me to incriminate myself in it. I wrote a letter explaining that I was leaving because his policies were immoral and illegal, which made them even angrier. I left with the evidence and bode my time before taking my next steps.

[Aside: Within a month, I, Charlie, and the sales director had all left Tutor4U. Robert Hacala, a brand designer by training, assumed the curricular director role. From what I gathered from some online instructors and Charlie, the lessons' quality plummeted and lesson output soared. Anyway, back to what happened next.]

Taiwan had changed its immigration laws, and that gave me six more months to remain in Taiwan before finding a new employer or leaving. I accepted a position at VoiceTube, designing a readability scorer, a curriculum, a database, and a demo for an app that they were planning. The environment there was much more collaborative. The CEO, Richard Zenn, was a savvy programmer who hired very skilled SLA experts and coders to build and maintain the VoiceTube platform. It was there that I taught myself Python and built the aforementioned materials. The demo app, however, was very rudimentary. Sadly, their app developer had to complete his Taiwanese military training, so the app never materialized. I also learned that VoiceTube was too small then to hire a foreign employee. I was going to be out of work after I finished the project.

VoiceTube was a collaborative environment that I remember fondly.
During that time, I also consulted with the free Legal Aid Service in Taipei about blowing the whistle on Tutor4U. They advised against it, but I moved forward when I didn't receive my final paycheck. The Labor Bureau sat on their hands with regards to the illegal employment complaint. The Labor Bureau did, however, get them to pay me my final paycheck (which Jack Huang claims was "found").

A few weeks before I left, CEO Hsu of Tutor4U filed a criminal charge against me. He claimed that I had "hacked" their system and deleted company property (in reference to those "shell" presentations). The documents I did take were only shared with the Labor Bureau to demonstrate legal wrongdoing. It was nonsense, but I had to hire a lawyer to postpone the hearing. However, since my visa was going to expire, anyway, I just left the country.

DM: What were the hiring processes like for you in Taipei?

In both cases, I applied to the positions through 104. At both Tutor4U and VoiceTube, the academic directors reached out to me directly. I sat for the interviews, raised their eyebrows, and landed the jobs. Unlike the US, Taiwan doesn't have an HR department. They have employment policies, but they're just large legal documents that the companies update sporadically. I always interacted directly with the people who were going to be overseeing my work.

More relevantly, though, lacking an HR department, there's no protocol for issuing moral grievances. That basically puts owners in a position to say, "Do as we command, or we'll fire you." That ultimatum style of leadership is ubiquitous in Taiwan.

[Aside: Also, the visa process was always on my shoulders after receiving every job offer. Employers help with the required documents on their end, but I've always had to go to Taiwan's National Immigration Agency and apply for the work visas, myself. That also means that I personally paid for the permission to work in Taiwan. In my opinion, that should be a business expense, like it is in other countries.]

I learned, too, that Taiwanese employers will pay your asking salary if it's clear that they want you and that you're willing to reject an offer that's too low. A lot of foreigners get reamed salary-wise because they reek of desperation. That's what I've gathered in discussing it with other people, anyway.

DM: How would you contrast those two experiences?

That's easy. Work at Tutor4U was a soul-draining endurance test with a high salary. Work at VoiceTube was an uplifting experience with a slightly lower salary.

It was as easy as reading the faces of the people who worked there. Workers at Tutor4U were emotionally drained. A lot of forced, false smiles on the webcams and furrowed brows or resigned expressions off the webcams. 

I didn't help things, I should add. I demanded a lot of precision from my subordinates. I also was bad at fostering intrinsic motivation. My attitude was that people who are passionate about languages are self-directed and pursue SLA development with a fervor similar to mine. However, I couldn't teach over a decade of osmosis to a dozen people on tight deadlines. That's probably where I felt the most ineffective working there.

I felt much more productive at VoiceTube, however. VoiceTube's staff also reintroduced me to genuine joy at work. Even the Chinese-English intern translators smiled at their keyboards. The developers explored ideas and tested them. They took their time to focus on quality. Only the CFO openly stressed over money issues; but, then again, he was the CFO.

To say the least, the contrast was evident.

DM: Is there such a thing as foreign employees' rights in Taiwan?

The Taiwanese Labor Bureau
Only on paper. Actually using the legal avenues to challenge criminal employment practices was a waste of effort. You'd think the Taiwanese government would take an interest in a firm hiring hundreds of skilled foreign people illegally and then treating them like garbage. What I discovered was that, if they could do one nominal good, they'd let the greater evil slide, and then pat themselves on the back for accomplishing the former.

So, thanks, Taiwanese Labor Bureau, for recovering my wages. Also, screw you, Taiwanese Labor Bureau, for not acting against firms that profit off of the illegal exploitation of people your entire department was designed to protect. You're just a paper dragon if you don't actually breathe fire.

DM: What are the main takeaways from your experiences?

More generally, I learned that a lot of businesspeople occupy themselves over how to keep a business running. They rarely ask themselves why their business should continue to run. More specifically, I took from my ordeal that the goal of a morally correct instructional institution is not student retention and profits. Those are the results of actually giving people skills they previously lacked. VoiceTube understood this far better than most online ESL firms worldwide do. The same disregard for quality and that push for sales quotas that I saw in Taiwan exist everywhere: in Central and Latin America, in China, and even in Western Europe.

I built my app and modeled my business approach to specifically avoid exchanging personal integrity and pedagogical ethics for money. I make a product, not a pitch. I trust in people who truly benefit from it to donate what they can to sustain my efforts. If they don't, then it's a signal for me to improve my product, not to adjust my promotional lingo. My experiences with the for-profit language industry are why I made my app full-on free and opted for a patronage business model.

DM: What advice would you give a foreigner in a similar situation to yours?

If something is immoral or illegal, speak up and be willing to quit or strike. Mass cowardice and compliance allows Taiwanese business owners to get away with heinous practices. Online instructors, especially those who work legally and take a lot of a company's instructional hours, don't realize how much power they collectively have to change employment policy to every instructor's benefit. Taiwanese business culture is reactive. Any sudden change will result in panicked adaptation. They just have to be brave enough to challenge firms to behave morally and legally.

Second, don't confuse politeness with respect. Politeness is just a facade, a way for folks to save face. Respect is evident in the actions they do or don't take. If you sense something is wrong, voice your concerns, and see no changes or at least open dialogue, you will know that the people don't respect you. Now, I commanded respect at Tutor4U via intellectual intimidation. However, the idea that one has to turn Machiavellian to get people to walk a moral and legal path is a sign of a deeper cultural defect that few foreigners will be able to impact. That doesn't mean it's not worth the effort, though. Moral standards are hard to keep, but that doesn't mean they're not worth defending, even if they come at personal or economic costs. I'm happier now than I was then because I stood up for myself and others.

Finally, if you're considering moving abroad to work in this industry, really research the employers. Keep an eye out for red flags in for-profit instruction: large sales teams; high turnover; legitimate, negative reviews; contractual secrecy; shady visa processing; and aggressive recruitment. If you need a maxim, try this one: Good jobs are not plentiful, and plentiful jobs are not good.