Back to the Future

It is spring in Vienna. We know this because the rubbish collectors have started their weekly collections of “organic-waste”, the first asparagus recipes have appeared in the glossies, and Tichy the most famous ice-cream brand in the capital has reopened for another season. For a bit. Unfortunately it closed quickly again around Easter when it became clear that even with a year of hard-to-mistaken signage the residents of the 10th district – current Corona hotspot in the capital – had still not grasped the essential principles of standing in a line.

That said, although it should be spring with all that this entails (friskiness, optimism, rebirth) another lockdown notwithstanding (listlessness, pessimism, insurrection) this year has been the coldest in Vienna since April 1997. Like other milestones in the history of the capital, the founding of Rotes Wien in 1919, kicking off a hundred years of progressive social democracy, the withdrawal of the Russian troops in 1955 to mark the end of the allied occupation, or the birth of Falco two years later, April 1997 has become enshrined in the mythology of modern Vienna. Yes, it is the date I arrived in the number one city.

Back then it wasn’t called the number one city because it was just emerging from fifty years of grey stagnation (according to the early guidebooks) and the true extent of my impact on public and economic life had yet to play out. But leaving London behind in 1997 was an easy decision. I had a job as a club manager which I hated, working for a company run by a group of individuals with the collective cognitive acumen of a tequila slammer. I lived in a grotty flat with a nearly lethal gas boiler and only a few months earlier I had been mugged on the streets of Kilburn as I returned from one of the many night shifts. This meant the chance to move to the centre of Europe was a major reset. An opportunity to finally live and breathe a different way of life, to learn a new language and, crucially, do a runner on the previously mentioned shithole of a home.

Indeed, those first few tentative steps as I reimagined a different existence, saw several warm, sunny days with a couple of visits to the local beer garden (Schutzhaus on the Schmelz) which was a short walk from my first flat in the 15th district. This was the life I told myself. Relaxed outdoor European drinking, decent weather, and a pint for 28 Schillings (about two quid). No pressure to find a job for a couple of weeks. Enthuse the atmosphere, get one’s bearings, have another Krugerl. After all, I was an English speaker with a degree. “Herr, Ober, noch eins bitte!”, is not what I would have said as I hadn’t acquired any German at this point. But worst case it would be OPEC or the United Nations, or better a well-paying cushy position as head of Coca-Cola Central Europe.

But as April continued, it began to snow and Vienna revealed its true identity: surprisingly cold, spontaneously indifferent, tiny supermarkets. Fortunately, that first flat in Vienna was a revelation as it was the first time in my life I had lived anywhere which never felt chilly or there was no danger of running out of hot water. “Er, where’s the boiler?” I would ask, only to be met by a puzzled yet slightly self-satisfied reply inspired by a flying DeLorean, “Boilers? Where we’re living, we don’t need boilers!” (I soon found out that the flat and many like it in Vienna had something called Fernwärme where hot water for washing and heating is generated centrally and then piped around the city).

For years after that, it still felt like I was just on holiday. But by week two it was clear my temporary relapse into a man of leisure was untenable (the basis of which became the theoretical foundation for what we now call in 2021 “sustainable working”) and I needed to get a job. Back then, as is the case now (although I didn’t know it back then) there were generally three main routes into gainful employment outside of an Irish pub in Vienna if you only spoke English – collectively known as the privileged, the providential and the precarious:

  1. You already have a senior job in an international company and were shipped to Vienna (in the early days as a punishment) as part of what you believed would advance your career. This could also apply to one of the international organizations like the UN or one of its derivatives.  
  2. You worked in an industry with a specific skillset shortage, anything with IT, engineering, or certain scientific professions where English was already widely used within a company or organization.
  3. You could become a Sprachtrainer (a teaching prostitute).  

I have been thinking about these early forays into teaching in Vienna recently, inspired by a few things I heard on the Autsiders podcast (two Brits in Wien making a valiant effort to expose the chancers, the connivers and the snollygosters in the big Austrian news stories). Where they discussed the recent scandal involving a company called Hygiene Austria, part of the Palmers Group, famous in Austria for its underpants and many high-street shops where harassed husbands can be found lurking amidst the lingerie. In short, we had all the ingredients of fraud and employee exploitation, with some dodgy re-branded FFP2 masks from China, dubiously entitled “Schwarzarbeit” (unregistered work, paid in cash, no questions asked kind of work), poverty wages and, oh yes, a lack of worker protection with no health insurance, holiday/sick pay and zero-hour contracts. It was these invidious facets of the modern economy, however, which gave me a little shudder. Because clearly not much had changed since I responded to that small advert in the Kurier newspaper in the freezing spring of 1997, seeking to recruit English native speakers with a university degree.

On reflection, landing that first job as a business English trainer wasn’t difficult. All I had to do was convince the chain-smoking director of the language school (think Joey’s agent in Friends) who took great delight in telling me what she got up to with the teenage boys in British coastal towns when she was a school pupil on language exchanges, that I could satisfy the three main conditions of engagement: be a native English speaker, demonstrate knowledge of business, and, most importantly, smoke Marlboro Lights.

Of course, when I say first job, what I meant was first “course” because there were no contracts as such with fixed hours. You were allocated a group (at the start this was always “in-company” which often meant a trip often outside of Vienna) and then depending on your feedback from the participants, you would build a reputation for competence, at least this is what it seemed like to me, and then this would lead to more work. Indeed, this was the experience of the three places I worked at before going it alone.

Although quite often the talk amongst staff was of securing a permanent contract (which would ensure social insurance and pension protection which up until that point was not being paid by language schools for the non-fixed staff) these positions were extremely rare. One such school, a European wide company, which wasn’t Berlitz, did offer contracts (fixed number of hours per month, fixed hours where you had a train other teachers) but the teachers were usually recruited directly from the UK or brought in from other schools on the continent.

But it was the issue of who should be paying the social insurance of trainers which dominated the teacher rooms for years (many trainers simply assumed their language school were doing so automatically) and simply underscored the lack of clarity regarding the relationship between institutes and their teachers (platforms and their minions in today’s money). More worryingly, nobody could give you a straight answer and if you complained too much, well, there was always some other Wappla taking a break from trying to make it as an opera singer to fill your late nineties shoes.     

Although the law was eventually changed to force the schools to start paying social insurance contributions, the cynical prevarication on the part of the industry were simply forerunners to what companies like Hygiene Austria continued to try and get away with twenty years later. Although they are certainly not alone. Consider the big tech “disrupters” I keep hearing about, the digital platforms which bring you your Friday night take-away, or deliver your packages from Amazon, or the app-based taxi services that ferry you around based on an algorithm, which revel in the persistent narrative that the idea of the “independent contractor” is a recent innovation. Upsetting traditional models of working, turbo-charging flexibility and revolutionizing the way people offer and execute certain services.

The reality, however, is rather more mundane in that precarious employment, no sickness or holiday pay, with no guarantees of hours or income, were normal among language institutes years before anyone had heard of a smartphone. The only difference was that they didn’t call them independent contractors but Freiberufler (freelancer) although unlike true freelancers who are/were free to ply their trade with any number of clients, the Sprachtrainer was almost entirely dependent on one institute for most of their work. Primarily because the different institutions didn’t like it if you worked for the competition.

This means that when I come across reports about the conditions of these so-called contractors in the gig-economy in 2021, the flashbacks keep coming. For example, the recruitment of too many trainers to create some perverse internal market where everybody was fighting for more hours and better courses. Your colleagues essentially became your competitor where the incentive was to pedagogically annihilate them with your superior materials, your more polished accent, and your toleration of insufferable middle managers destined for disappointment in life and divorce.

Or how about the current debate about “actual working” time versus “being available” time? This was (it probably still is) exactly the same as the language trainer who had to work on one course in the morning, say from eight till ten, and then hang around half the day (not worth going home or not feasible to squeeze in another job) to do another course later that afternoon or in the evening. In short, it was the equivalent of sitting in your taxi waiting for your next fare (with all the other suckers).

At heart, the notion of availability or lack of it is the grotesque fallacy of the flexibility debate and the language school directors were pioneers. Over the years, if anybody has asked me how to get a foothold in the business, my one piece of advice (apart from don’t be crap,) is when you are starting out, never turn down work. Like the tech companies today which proudly tout the attractiveness of their flexible working practices, putting control in the hands of the contractor, this can in some cases serve the student looking to make a bit more money, or the bored spouse of an expat desperate to escape the martial home. Yet “being available” for any language course – the so-called Martini Principle – was critical. Of course, not every course was at the Ministry of Finance with a generous snack budget and so if you rebuffed too often that seven o’clock start, two-hour journey from the old Südbanhof to reach some forgotten backwater in Lower Austria (and no, you were not paid for the time you spent coming back) then eventually they stopped asking. In short, this was and is not flexibility, this is barely disguised extortion.

Yes, you could make decent money (like the Uber driver today working multiple shifts) but you had to be on the go from eight in the morning till eight in the evening showing a willingness to be available even if you were not being paid as you moved around between jobs. Sound familiar? And think about it. We did this without the iniquitous surveillance of technology and yet an algorithm today in all these companies which bring services to your door, is already recording and assessing every contractor decision and outcome. Instant feedback. Instantly not offered another ride. Of course, ultimately, it will not matter because none of these companies are interested in their products or services any way. They are simply a conduit to acquire data which they can monetize by some other means. And with the rollout of driverless technology, the independent contractor simply becomes a stepping-stone to extinction and one less nuisance for the venture capitalist.

But hey, it could be worse. You could be one of those people expending a disproportionate amount of time getting all worked up at the choice of footwear of Austria’s new Minister of Health during his inauguration with the President last week (clutch your pearls, readers, he wore white trainers). Rather, say, than raise an eyebrow or two at the fact that the mouthpiece for better health outcomes in the nation and a practicing GP, is – GREAT SCOTT! not averse to a crafty cigarette. Ah, the smell of ’97.

© 2021 RJ Barratt