Little recourse for unpaid freelance tutors

They cannot turn to MOE, Case or MOM for help in pay disputes with tuition agencies

When freelance tutor C.K. Tan terminated an assignment with an online tuition agency in August, he was due to receive half of the paid fees.

But after delays in the two months that followed, SmileTutor stopped picking up his calls, the infocomm executive alleged. When he contacted the agency, it said it could pay him only when the tutee did.

Mr Tan, 27, who started tutoring seven years ago, made a police report in late October. Last month, he filed a claim with the Small Claims Tribunals to receive the $75 he was owed and took to Facebook to warn others about the situation.

Mr Tan is among thousands of freelancers who work with tuition agencies linking them to prospective students.

Such agencies do not need to be registered with the Ministry of Education (MOE). The Consumers Association of Singapore does not handle remuneration to tutors. And under the Employment Act, part-timers without a contract are not covered by the Manpower Ministry.

So freelancers like Mr Tan have few means of recourse when they run into payment disputes with such agencies.

Many tuition firms operate online, some boasting up to tens of thousands of tutors. It is hard to estimate the number of online tuition agencies, but the private tuition industry is estimated to be worth more than $1 billion annually, with some 600 tuition centres registered with MOE.

While new online agencies have been opening, they also tend to close down in less than a year, said Mr Andy Chan, 35, co-owner of EdustarAsia Tuition Services.

Freelance tutors said they often do not sign a contract with online agencies but submit proof of their education background before being matched to assignments.

But when disputes occur, they tend to be swept under the carpet.

Said Mr Tan, who earns around $2,000 a month from tutoring: "Most people, including myself, often don't want to pursue cases because it's a waste of time and involves small amounts of money."

Mr Tan said this was the third time he had not been paid after work he got through an agency. He was owed $125 in 2009, which he did not recover, and around $350 in 2010, which he managed to get.

After those times, he started asking parents to pay fees to him directly after a month instead of through the agency, which generally takes a cut in the first month.

"The agency told me it was the parents' fault as they did not pay up. I don't know who to believe," he added. He has not been able to contact the parents, he said.

SmileTutor manager Tan Ruming said: "In this particular case, the tutee has so far defaulted from paying... We have been following up diligently regarding payments."

Mr C.K. Tan still worries that agencies will take advantage of tutors.

Freelance tutors The Straits Times spoke to said they have had issues with two other firms.

A tutor who wanted to be known only as Janice, 30, said she was not informed by agency Nanyang Academics when, after a month, a client wanted to engage a new tutor who could teach more subjects.

A Facebook page she created, asking tutors with bad experiences to come forward, received more than 10 other anonymous entries against the firm, including claims that the owner did not pay them.

Mr Edwin Choy, 26, alleged that Nanyang Academics threatened to publish his personal information on social media after asking for commission from a cancelled lesson.

Mr Ethan Lau, owner of Nanyang Academics, denied this and alleged that the tutee had paid Mr Choy.

On the other Facebook claims, Mr Lau said that there had been some miscommunication.

Experienced tutors such as Ms Yap Si Hui, 30, who has spent 14 years in the field, encourage unpaid tutors to file a claim with the Small Claims Tribunals.

She said that inexperienced tutors tend to forgo their cash if tutees stop classes after one or two weeks.

On filing a claim, she said: "We have to let them know that we are also making a living. Otherwise, people can take advantage of us."

Should there be more regulation?

National University of Singapore economics lecturer Kelvin Seah, whose research focuses on the economics of education, said: "The problem arises not because of a lack of regulation but a lack of transparency and communication regarding agency fees."

He added: "I don't think hard regulation would be the right answer. A best practices-based suasion approach may be more apt."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 19, 2016, with the headline 'Little recourse for unpaid freelance tutors'. Print Edition | Subscribe