Allegations of workers having wages withheld have emerged against Sydney-based English tutoring firm Delta Specialist English Tuition after a post published by a Facebook meme page criticising the tutoring industry went viral. The post, put out by Sydney Asian Memes for Selective School Teens, a popular Facebook page with more than 17,000 followers, cautioned new high school graduates from seeking employment with exploitative tutoring firms. The meme page has since disappeared.
In the comments section of the post, a commentator alleged that Delta held onto its tutors’ pay for a month before paying them less than what they had earned. It stated that the company told workers the discrepancy was due to a “retrospective change” that was applied to the payment.
Soon after, comments from two former Delta employees appeared in the same thread in which they seemed to confirm this allegation. While one comment has since been deleted, the other claimed that Delta had not only underpaid its staff, but also told employees that they owed the company money. The comment stated that, as a consequence, tutors would be working without pay for the next few months.
Honi has seen screenshots of an email sent by the Delta centre manager to tutors outlining this “retrospective change.” In it, the email states that overpayments were found after an inspection, causing the company to make deductions to the payslips of tutors who had been overpaid. This left many tutors with a negative balance, which Delta said would be “deducted from future payslips until there is a positive balance.” No further reasons for the change were given.
Honi understands the alleged incident was made possible by Delta’s unique business structure. Self-labelled as a “boutique” English tutoring firm, Delta’s website states that it provides students with a “personalised mentor” who received a state rank in HSC English. While also offering conventional class-based lessons, Delta is distinguished from other tutoring firms by offering students “unlimited” 1-on-1 sessions and essay marking from their mentor. Honi understands that the price for this service is in excess of $10,000 a year.
For tutors, most of whom are first year university students with exceptional HSC marks, this business model means that they are paid based on how many students they mentor as opposed to how many hours they work. Honi understands that, previously, Delta paid a flat monthly rate to tutors regardless of how much students interacted with their tutor. Speaking to Honi, a former tutor who did not wish to be named, stated that it was a complicated model, but the management at Delta themselves explained it was made fair by the work generated by highly-engaged students being balanced out by less engaged ones.
“This was all guaranteed to us in person by the director earlier this year when we just joined,” she said.
Under the new rule, however, tutors are only paid for months students engaged with them. With regards to this, the former tutor stated that the rule change itself was not the problem, but more that it had not been communicated to staff, and that it had applied retrospectively. This meant that tutors were working under the assumption that they would be paid even if a student did not engage.
“If they thought we could be doing more work, then we would’ve been happy to comply. We could have easily reached out to students before the HSC. But these expectations were never raised to us prior to some of us getting paid zero for the month,” she said.
Instead of alerting staff about the change, Honi understands Delta sought to retroactively apply the rule to past payments by not paying tutors for the month of October, and having them work off the amount they were “overpaid” until it was completely “repaid.” As some students had not engaged with Delta’s services for months, these changes would have forced some tutors to work for as much as three months without pay.
The former tutor stated that she believed around $15,000 had been withheld from payment.
When a group of unpaid tutors sought to negotiate with the director, they were told that he would only see them on an individual basis, and only with a member of senior staff present as well. In response, the group sent in a letter of resignation, which was accepted by Delta. Honi understands that 6 tutors have left Delta this past year, and that at least 5 of them were involved in some form of pay dispute. As of the time of publication, many of the profiles of these former tutors are still on Delta’s website.
Complicating matters, in the aforementioned comment thread, Delta’s founder Satvik Sekhar counter-alleged that three employees left because it was found they were “work-avoidant” and “lazy.” Sekhar, who is also a doctor at Concord Hospital, stated that Delta had “absolutely nothing to hide,” but added that one of the employees who raised their complaints on Facebook had placed themselves in “a precarious position defaming, slandering and representing our workplace policies in an absolutely fraudulent manner.” It is unclear what avenues Delta can seek in response to this alleged defamation, given that the Defamation Act of NSW states that private corporations with more than 10 employees have no standing to sue in defamation — in the same comment, Sekhar stated that Delta still had “a dozen other people who are currently happily employed.” He also alleged that the reasons behind the complaint was because the former employee “discovered she sucked at her job, [and] is pissed she can’t buy a $3k handbag every other fortnight from her lavish Delta paycheck.”
Speaking on Sekhar’s allegations, the former employee stated that an email was sent out to all tutors outlining their responsibilities, such as following up with students if they were not engaging. However, this was sent out only two days before they received their zeroed October payslip. She refuted Sekhar’s allegations about “laziness” and told Honi she had over 500 email correspondences with students, some threads with up to 10 emails, in her now deactivated work inbox. She also provided numerous screenshots of messages from students thanking her for her efforts. She further stated that she had never been told while employed at Delta that she needed to improve her work ethic, and had not received any complaints either.
“I can definitely say that I had my own flaws as a tutor, but I think his [Sekhar’s] strong allegations really don’t represent the employees who left.” she said.
“If you look at the contract we did exactly what we were told.”
Honi understands that the group of tutors who quit are now planning to take up their case with the Fair Work Ombudsman.
The tutoring industry is notoriously unregulated and unmonitored. It is estimated to be worth $1.25 billion, and is growing at 4.1% a year.
Honi reached out to Delta Education for comment, but they did not respond at the time of publication.
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