'Native speakers only' ads and EU law

I’ve written previously on my other blog about discriminatory hiring practices in TEFL. You can find the post here and I promise to post it on this blog soon too. In a nutshell, over 70% of the posts advertised on the biggest search engine for TEFL job seekers, tefl.com, are exclusively for NESTs (Native Speaker English Teacher). If you’re not one, don’t bother applying. You might have a PhD and 100 years of teaching experience, but no one will even bother looking at your CV.

Common sense and gut feeling tell most of us that what we have here is a clear case of discrimination. Same as any other type of discrimination, such as based on gender, race or ethnicity. But gut feeling is only just that, and can only get you so far. Have you ever wondered, though, whether such ads were legal

I have. And I went where most people in doubt go to (no, not the psychologist or a psychic): I googled it! To narrow my scope, I focused on the European Union. Very quickly google told me that the law had the same gut feeling as I did.

Here are some of the things I found:

  • Article 21 of EU basic rights reads as follows (highlighted by me):

1.   Any discrimination based on any ground such as sex, race, colour, ethnic or social origin, genetic features, language, religion or belief, political or any other opinion, membership of a national minority, property, birth, disability, age or sexual orientation shall be prohibited. 2.Within the scope of application of the Treaties and without prejudice to any of their specific provisions, any discrimination on grounds of nationality shall be prohibited.

You can access the full document here. This just confirms what we all know. Discrimination against race and nationality is illegal in the EU. My gut feeling was telling me that non-native speakers were being discriminated against on the basis of their language, birth and ethnic origin.

Let’s delve deeper and see what gems EU law holds for us in store.

In 2001, in an answer to written question E-4100/00, the European Commission (EC) stated that:

It follows that the native speaker criterion could be considered to be discriminatory and thus incompatible with the Community rules on the freedom of movement of workers in the Community.

In May 2002 the EC also announced that:

The Commission is of the opinion that the phrase “native speaker” is not acceptable, under any circumstances, under Community law. […] the Commission recommends using a phrase such as “perfect or very good knowledge of a particular language” as a condition of access to posts for which a very high level of knowledge of that language is necessary.

That same year, a Commission Communication of 11 December 2002 on ‘Free movement of workers – achieving the full benefits and potential’ (COM (2002) 694 final), when asked about language requirements for particular jobs, reads as follows:

the language requirement must be reasonable and necessary for the job in question and must not be used to exclude workers, so that advertisements requiring a particular language as a ‘mother tongue’ are not acceptable.

One year later, when a German MEP, Jo Leinen, asked the EC whether the words “native speaker” could be used in a job advertisement, 0n 23 May 2003 the EC ruled the following:

In its answer to Question E-0941 the commission states that the term native speaker is not acceptable, under any circumstance, under community law. The Commission also states its intention of continuing to use its powers to fight against any discrimination caused by a requirement for native speaker knowledge in job advertisements.

So, it seems that as a prospective employee you have many rights and there are very strict anti-discrimination rules by which the recruiter needs to abide both in the job advertisements, as well as in the whole recruitment process. You can read more about your rights and recruiters obligations here.

All this means that employers are only allowed to ask for native-like competence in a given language, which on CEFR is C2, but not for a mother tongue.

What does this mean for you as an aspiring NNEST?

That it’s high time you got angry and acted. Don’t bury your head in the sand. Don’t be discouraged if you see a NEST only ad. Stand up for your rights and make your voice heard. The law is on your side so use it. And you have the power to change the status quo.

Not to say that you have to take somebody to court right away, but politely informing the language school they are breaking the law might just do the trick. I’ve done so on numerous occasions. More often than not, schools are quite eager to listen to persuasive arguments and are willing to change their ads and recruitment policies.

What if I’m a NEST? Why would I bother doing anything?

Because your help is vital. Your school might not only be choosing teachers based on nationality, rather than their qualifications and experience, but also breaking the law. You might be doing them a big favour by informing them about it. If you’ve always felt that native speakers only ads were unfair, that teachers should be valued on the basis of their qualifications, then it’s your chance to do something about it by joining the movement.

For example, take a look at this really inspiring article from Adam Beale, in which he tells us why he decided to refuse an interview offer from an employer that only recruited ‘native speakers’. If you’re not exactly sure what’s the best way to react to the job ads for ‘native speakers’ only that you see, this post by Katherine Bilsborough is really helpful.

Footnote: I’ve only described the law in the EU and I’m not sure what it’s like outside the community. However, this is where you can come in. Investigate what the law says about it in your country. Consult an anti-discrimination organisation. I’d love to hear your feedback.

Let’s be pro-active!

Read more about what you can do to support the campaign in James Taylor’s fantastic post here and on our page Get involved.

38 thoughts on “'Native speakers only' ads and EU law”

  1. I really couldn't agree more! I am afraid, however, that amny of the language schools/recruiters who want NEST teachers exlusively, are fully aware of the fact what they do is discrimination, yet they couldn't care less about it…
    As a non-native EFL teacher I have experienced a great deal of discrimination, as pressumably most of us, NNEST's. Having over 10 years of teaching experience under my belt (inluding teaching EFL in schools and universities in the UK), being fully qualified (BEd, MA, CETLA) I cannot win when competing with unexperienced NEST's with merely CELTA or TEFL certificate at best. Long story short – I have pointed out to a few recruiters/schools that the fact they turn my application down because they want NEST's only is illegal according to the EU law – I have not anything from them ever again and they kept advertising the positions for “English mother tongue” teachers (or “teachers”) only. Perhaps they should see some of my former colleagues “in action” – constantly misspelling words and telling the students it's the American version (in a few cases it probably was), or not understanding the relationship between “to be” and a'l these “is/am/are”, just to name a few glaring aspects of some NEST's …
    As much as I agree with you that something ought to be done about this ludicruous situation, I'm afraid that the only outcome of any “action” would be a change in the job advert wording, if at all. The fact that they adverstise the position as open to native and non-native teachers will not neccessarily mean that their selection process will be impartial. At the end of the day, we do not have any insight into the applications received by the recruiters, nor are we informed about the grounds on which they selected the candidates (or they may lie point-blank about it..) What stops the recruiters from saying that the successful candidate was chosen due to their experience or qualifications? Sadly, nobody will be able to check that. I have been tempted to “take the matters further” a few times myself, having read that my application was not successful as they wanted a mother tongue teacher. Frankly speaking, I think a lot of us, if not all, quietly accept being turned down because the whole idea of a lawsuit against a school seems rather overwhelming and expensive… Also, most of the time we simply don't hear back from the schools or get a very generic response saying that our application was not successful on this occassion – don't think that's enough to rely on in court. I wish I could think of a way to talk some sense into all those blinkered by the NEST myth school owners and recruiters… At the moment though, after years of what feels like hitting my head against the brick wall, the thought of requalifying is more and more tempting, I'm just a bit worried, though, if I wouldn't be discriminated on the age grounds then 😉

  2. Hi Aggie,
    Thank you for your comment.
    I know how you feel, because as a NNEST I've also been discriminated more than once. However, I'm much more optimistic about the future.
    Things have been changing for the better in the recent years, and are bound to continue in the future. Most respected language schools stopped to recruit teachers based on their nativeness, and some organisation have also issued statements condemning native speakers only ads (e.g. TESOL France, CATESOL). Of course, as you say, schools can still discriminate in a less conspicuous way. However, I do think that more and more employers are starting to see the value of treating their staff equally.
    I also feel that it is us, the non-native speakers, who have to believe most strongly that change is possible. It is also us who have to act to bring the change about, because it will never happen of its own accord. There are many things one can do, and being vocal about the discrimination is probably one of the best tools we have. This is why I've decided to set up this blog.
    I've also written to schools who advertise for natives only, and many were willing to discuss the matter and even change their policies. Of course, there are still a lot which will just refuse to even talk to you, let alone listen to your reasoning. But being persistent might help.
    I've also had my application turned down on the basis of not being a native speaker on two occasions. On both I decided to write an article about it which got published and cause quite a stir and a very positive response in the TEFL community. On both occasions the employers actually invited me to an interview (once they found out I was publishing the article that wouldn't be very favourable for them).
    All this makes me think that we have a responsibility to act. Feeling pessimistic about the future and outcomes of our actions will not change much. Schools will just continue to discriminate. Let's be angry and act!
    So my message is: be positive. Act! Don't let them get away with it. Join this blog. Join a FB group were we advocate equal rights. Write an article. 🙂

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  6. Hello. This is interesting. However this is leading to the propogation of the so called EU version of the English language. Whats that? Well. We are seeing non english words being introduced. Moreover, many words are being missused in the EU. It’s corrupting our language. But the worst thing is that many very traditional words arent being taught to language learners by non native teachers, because they dont know them. Non natives often dont understand the subtle ambiguities, double meanings, or more complicated humour. Not to mention accents. Ive never met a non native teacher who speaks like a native. You see. To fully understand a language like English you have to have lived it and truely used it. Not just when one has lived in England for a few years and studied at university there. You have to have had deep integration into society and be part of the cultural background to really understand it. Not only English. Same for any language. I have taught English for many years now and along side non natives. I have always ended up having to explain a lot to them. Dont get me wrong. Non natives are good at lower level teaching and exam English. But for students who really want to understand the language in depth, i still feel well educated (degree/masters/phd and celta/trinity/delta/esp dip) native, mother tongue speakers are the best candidates.

    1. As a Native speaker of French I taught French at the University of Salford in Manchester UK for more than 20 years and — far from having had to “explain a lot them” as you put it — not once have I had to explain anything or correct any of my colleagues who were non-native speakers of French and taught that language. Interestingly, for all the languages apart from English, there are in British universities language department almost a parity between Native speakers and non-native speakers. This partly, but partly only, reflected the fact that Translation was being taught.
      As to accent, I have come across many non-native French language teachers at British universities who spoke absolutely perfectly French without accent.

      1. >>What a cliche, a native who can’t use punctuation properly hahaha! It’s ‘aren’t, not ‘arent’ and ‘don’t’, not ‘dont’, etc etc etc…!

        There should be a period, or exclamation, or possibly a colon or even dash after “What a cliche” here. But there >shouldn’t< be a comma.

    2. So you think that “for students who really want to understand the language in depth”, native teachers are best. Presumably to teach those “very traditional words” that NNESTs skip because they simply don’t know them. Ok, what would be the point then? If these words are so wonderfully obscure (but so important at the same time) that only natives can learn them, so difficult to learn that even non-native teachers who have spent YEARS studying English and advancing their careers don’t know them, do you think that students will be able to learn them by having lessons a couple of hours a week, or benefit in any way from hearing them?

      As far as English being used internationally today (English as a Lingua Franca), this will inevitably lead to changes in the language, and even languages that are NOT used internationally change and borrow from other languages, it’s natural.

  7. Dear Marek,

    Many thanks for your illuminating post. I only came across it a day or two ago. Just by a coincidence, today I received an email:

    “I am sorry to say that we are only hiring native English speakers for this position, and will therefore not be able to consider your application.”

    Normally, I would never respond this kind of email, rather press “delete”. But today I couldn’t help it. It took me about three minutes.

    “Dear Whoever,

    You may be interested to know that it is illegal under EU law to discriminate against non-Native English speakers, which is exactly what your company does.”

    Unfortunately, the link in your post, http://www.equalityhumanrights.com/advice-and-guidance/guidance-for-employers-pre-october-10/areas-of-responsibility/recruitment-and-job-advertisements/ , is broken, so I can’t find the document you are referring to.

    Thank you again,

    1. Dear Kirill,
      Thanks for writing.
      I’m glad you responded to the email. We shouldn’t look the other way, but actively oppose discrimination whenever we can. Otherwise, nNEST will forever be seen as inferior. Keep me posted if you get any response. Where was the job you applied for? Where do you teach?
      Thanks for pointing it out. I’ve fixed it in the post. For your convenience, here’s the link: http://www.equalityhumanrights.com/private-and-public-sector-guidance/guidance-for-all/pre-equality-act-guidance/guidance-for-employers-pre-october-10/areas-of-responsibility/recruitment-and-job-advertisements

      1. Hi Marek,

        I am a teacher assistant (auxiliar de conversación) in Spain. The job in question, however, is not a teaching one but editorial, with Longdom Publishing. Here’s the original ad: http://www.nature.com/naturejobs/science/jobs/467601-freelance-medical-editor

        I find any kind of discrimination repulsive, however in this particular case the requirement of “nativeness” it is even less defensible than for EFL teacher (nobody is going to hear my accent anyway).

        I think I am going to follow your example and write a blog post. Name and shame, I say.

        All the best,

        1. Very good idea. I’d be delighted to share it here too.
          I’d also suggest writing to them to inform them about the article and the reasons for it. See what they say.
          I also find discrimination repulsive, but try to avoid emotional and strong language in the article or the email to the recruiter. I’ve found that the more objective and factual the style, the better.
          Let me know how it goes.

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  14. I have been asked to recruit Native English speakers for China. I had an ad on social media and one of my TESL colleagues in another city provided me with this link. I am not sure how to proceed now. Should I refuse to recruit for China because they require Native speakers only? How do we change this attitude in other countries? Patrice

    1. Hi,
      Thanks for writing.
      If it’s a particular employer, then it might be worth writing to them explaining why being a NS is not an appropriate criteria. Also, there’s no evidence to suggest that the majority of students in China prefer any NS to any NNS. Sts have been found to acknowledge and appreciate the qualities both groups can bring into the classroom. You could also base your policy of not accepting job ads for NS only on TESOL International, IATEFL and TESOL France hiring policies. They only accept ads which give equal opportunities to all teachers.
      Keep me posted!

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  21. This is a very powerful article, made me realize why I would want to teach and pursue career in teaching English as a second language. I’m in the middle of job hunting here in Thailand and it breaks my heart to see ads about schools specifically looking for native speakers only. I am not a native speaker but I’m pretty sure I’m eligible for the job. Working as a teacher for more than six years I thought that I would be able to apply for any teaching job there is out there unfortunately, there is only a few jobs that doesn’t require non native speakers which often than not gives you the lowest salary you can imagine. I am always frustrated walking out from an interview knowing that I did my best prepared all the necessary documents that they need and end up getting an offer different from the one posted online just because I’m not a native speaker. It’s frustrating but I feel like there’s nothing more I can do about it. I can only accept it for what it is move on and hope that someone out there would actually see me as a person with so much skill and talent to share.

    1. Hello Rue,
      Thanks for commenting and apologies for not getting back to you sooner.
      I know how frustrating it is. I’ve been there as a non-native speaker myself many times before. The worst thing we can do, though, is give up. Take a look at some of the equal opportunities employers here: The hall of fame – TEFL Equity Advocates https://teflequityadvocates.com/the-hall-of-fame/
      I would also aim for schools such as British Council or International House. They’re usually quite open to non-native speakers.

  22. I really don’t feel it’s discrimination! It is just a choice in who they want teaching a specific language………many jobs specify certain requirements in their position, and this is one of
    Thank you,

    1. Are you able to read the legislation? What you feel is not relevant, what is relevant is that it is considered discriminatory by law.

  23. While I understand the frustration of being a NNEST, I think legislation is a waste of time. TEFL employers don’t discriminate just because they are bigoted, they do so because they are responding to demand.

    In Spain most clients are parents (the users being children) and the majority of them have a relatively low level of English. They have no way of ascertaining whether or not a teacher speaks decent English.

    The first question I am asked is whether the teacher is native. They are absolutely convinced that native teachers are best.

    I would have to be an idiot to ignore that demand in order to be ‘fair’ to NNESTs. Making it illegal to advertise for native teachers will not materially help NNESTs, it just means employers will change the wording of their ads but still only employ natives.

    1. Well, evidently you do not get why legislations are in place in sovereign states, and this is something I wouldn’t brag about, seeing that you are an adult.
      The “demand” needs to be adjusted to the law. And the market is something that we humans have created, therefore, it needs to benefit humans, all of them.

  24. Hi Marek,

    Would you have a website/link that I could use to report discriminatory job ads in Europe? This is becoming ridiculous as I am seeing ads for random jobs that DO NOT require teaching asking for English native speakers and this needs to stop. I am talking about Germany.
    Some jobs are advertised for a position in which the English native speaker is required to only speak English but the SAME job requires other applicants to speak English, their native language plus another language!
    I am boiling now, this needs to be reported!

    Thanks in advance for your help!

    1. Hi Becca,
      Thanks for your comment. You might want to try Equinet: http://www.equineteurope.org/
      I would also suggest writing to the employer directly and quote the legislation. I’ve often found that some are actually quite receptive to this if you keep the tone polite. Here’s a sample email you could edit and send to save yourself some work: http://teflequityadvocates.com/get-involved/write-back/
      Let me know how it goes and whether I can help in any other way.

  25. By law it’s not discriminatory if it’s related to the requirements of the job.
    If that was the case they wouldn’t be able to specify language ability and testing ie for medical staff. Teaching a language involves teaching the culture, esp for organisations such as the British Council.

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