Foreign teachers see no closure with Apax Leaders' unpaid salaries

By Minh Nga   April 3, 2024 | 03:11 pm PT
Cash-strapped expatriate teachers in Vietnam who were scammed into working for free at the English language center Apax Leaders said the incident had affected their trust in the language school business.

Avinash Soni, a South African, came to work as a teacher at Apax Leaders in 2019. Then the pandemic hit, and the school began facing financial troubles in 2020.

Soni mentioned that the company had promised to keep paying salaries even when classes were canceled due to pandemic restrictions.

"When the company started to fall behind on payments, it came as a shock, but as other companies in the field had also been experiencing issues, we initially remained quite optimistic," he said.

Plenty in his cohort had the same reaction.

His fellowman Callan Williams said: "We believed at the time that the loss of sales revenue was the cause of our financial troubles and that this would be corrected once centers reopened."

Teacher Alexander Wood noted that the start of the company's financial issues aligned with the onset of stricter pandemic measures, and given the outbreak's progression in Vietnam.

"So there was a lot of anxiety surrounding lockdowns on top of anxiety surrounding our pay."

By that time, "Shark Thuy asserted in an email that we would be paid '100% and in full' during the period of online classes and lockdown," Wood, an American citizen, recalled, referring to Nguyen Ngoc Thuy, chairman of education corporation Egroup, which owns Apax Leaders.

Parents gather at a center of Apax Leaders school in HCMCs Phu Nhuan District to demand the tutition the school owes them, March 5, 2023. Photo by VnExpress/Le Nguyen

Parents gather at a center of Apax Leaders school in HCMC's Phu Nhuan District to demand the tutition the school owes them, March 5, 2023. Photo by VnExpress/Le Nguyen

Thuy, 41, became popular through his appearances on TV reality investment show Shark Tank Vietnam in 2018 and 2019.

He established Egroup in 2008 and turned it into a major education company boasting several well-known brands. Its most popular is Apax Leaders, the chain of English teaching centers operated by its only listed subsidiary, Apax Holdings.

Apax Leaders started making headlines in late 2019 after parents in Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi, Dak Lak Province, and Da Nang City accused it of failing to provide the high-quality education it promised.

In 2020 and 2021, the scores of unsuspecting parents paid for their children to study English at several Apax Leaders centers, but many centers then immediately closed following financial crises at Apax Holdings.

Several parents received their money back in installments from June to August 2023, but many others have been left waiting until Thuy said in January this year that the company would be unable to refund the fees since it faced "difficulties."

In HCMC alone, Apax Leaders still owes 4,400 students around VND94 billion (US$3.79 million), the municipal Department of Education and Training said earlier this month.

False promises

As it turned out, parents are not the only victims.

According to authorities, the school owes VND11.5 billion in salaries to teachers and staff and VND9 billion in rents.

Data from the Vietnam Social Insurance and the HCMC Tax Department shows that Apax Leaders owed over VND32 billion in insurance premiums for employees and VND15 billion in taxes as of last year.

Both Soni and Wood said Apax currently owes them around VND120 million each.

"Thankfully I was in a position to get myself out of Vietnam before ultimately losing all capability of financially supporting myself," said Soni, who left in 2021 and returned towards the end of 2022 to work for an international school.

Many others were not as lucky.

British teacher Hannah Clemett said that by August 2021, Apax owed her two months of salary, so she left the company.

She is involved in various Facebook groups where "angry foreign teachers are trying to get the salaries that are owed to them."

"Apax still owes me more than VND100 million. This puts significant financial strain on me for a long time and has left me extremely anxious," she said.

It soon became apparent after 2022 that even once centers had reopened, the company was unwilling to pay what it owed to its teachers.

It was around late 2021 and early 2022 that most teachers resigned en masse, said Williams.

Many teachers continued working despite not getting paid because they feared losing their visas and getting kicked out of the country, he added.

"I had gotten married to my Vietnamese wife at the end 2021 and had to wait several months to get my marriage visa. Had I left Apax at that point I would have had no choice but to leave Vietnam while the borders were still closed and without knowing when I would be able to see my wife again. As a result, I was forced to stay and endure several months without pay."

Williams said Apax still owes him over VND300 million.

"On my wedding day I had no money left in my account. I was extremely embarrassed and humiliated and my wife and her family had to take care of the entire wedding financially. For almost an entire year I was totally financially dependent on my wife," he said.

As difficult as it could sound for Williams, he insisted that he "was not the worst affected."

There was a teacher who was owed nearly VND500 million, resulting in his eviction from his apartment and subsequent homelessness. Meanwhile, another teacher, brought over from abroad in mid-2022 by Apax, had her flight costs covered through a loan provided by the company. Yet, within her first two months of employment, Apax failed to pay her any salary.

"They brought foreign teachers into the country knowing full well that they were not going to pay them. This forced many new teachers to leave the company in debt or without ever having received a salary," Williams said.

Callan Williams poses for a photo with his students at an Apax Leaders center when he was still working for the school. Photo courtesy of Williams.

Callan Williams (C) poses for a photo with his students at an Apax Leaders center when he was still working for the school. Photo courtesy of Williams

British teacher Oliver Whitehead also shared that Apax owes him around VND120 million and mentioned that his savings "were completely spent."

"It was extremely stressful living in a foreign country with an undependable income, not knowing when I would be paid next, and if I did get paid I wouldn't know how much."

"We would often be promised half of this month first then a date halfway through the month for the other half. Then 25% on pay day and they three more installments of 25%, then these dates would go by with the usual promises of other dates," he said.

Seeking redress

Wood from the U.S. said that right after Hanoi's strictest lockdown measures were lifted and vaccinations were done, he, along with some past and present employees of Apax Leaders, united to raise their complaints with relevant authorities.

At that point, he was owed around VND200 million, and through a process that consumed a lot of his time and efforts, he was able to get back VND80 million.

He added that some employees were less lucky, and so far they have got nothing back.

Beth Maxwell, a British teacher, is one such former Apax staff member.

"I sent countless emails, sought legal assistance, called the office. Everything to no avail. Eventually Apax HR department blocked my email address."

Until now, she could not get back VND25 million from the school and has returned to her country.

For Whitehead, the situation was not better. He reached out to a lawyer, who initially appeared willing to assist. However, after he forwarded related documents, the lawyer ceased responding to his emails.

"I went to Apax’s new head office under the guise that I was looking to come back for work, but as soon as I mentioned compensation or tax documents relating to my previous employment, I found all doors were quickly closed before I could get through and talk to anyone."

Williams, the Vietnamese wife's husband, added: "We attempted to strike multiple times and those attempts were either followed by quick payments (that didn't cover a full month's salary), empty promises, to actual threats of being blacklisted and deported."

The only reasonable thing that most teachers could do was refuse to teach, which resulted in Apax moving classes online, he said.

Another teacher, who is American, said she is currently in a lawsuit against Apax Leaders and therefore, wished to remain anonymous. She said that according to a chart created by a unifying group of teachers, Apax owes at least 81 foreign teachers a total sum of VND13.4 billion ($536,300).

"Now that Thuy has been arrested, there isn't much hope in getting what we are owed as the whole process took too long," she added.

Nguyen Ngoc Thuy was arrested on March 25 over allegations of committing fraud to appropriate properties in the transfer of shares at Egroup.

Apax Leaders, licensed in 2016, used to have 120 centers nationwide with approximately 120,000 students. By the time of his arrest, it only has eight centers, mostly in the north.

The next day after the arrest, Apax Leaders said it would temporarily suspend the calculation of tuition and debts during the investigation. The refunding of tuition would also be suspended during the process.

Nguyen Ngoc Thuy is surrounded by parents demanding tuition fees in HCMC, April 9, 2023. Photo by VnExpress/Le Nguyen

Nguyen Ngoc Thuy is surrounded by parents demanding tuition fees in HCMC, April 9, 2023. Photo by VnExpress/Le Nguyen

Trust issue

The breach of financial commitment by Apax Leaders has eroded the faith of foreign educators as they now stand at a crossroads, grappling with financial uncertainties.

"The trust broken by Apax will never be fully rebuilt," said Clemett, who has recently married a Vietnamese man.

"I felt extremely nervous when looking for a new job. I no longer trust any language center as reliable. I now work at an international school."

Maxwell said the experience with Apax had left her "scared and wary of working abroad."

" I hope Shark Thuy gets his comeuppance, and we eventually receive what is owed to us. But I highly doubt this will ever happen," she said.

Wood even expressed concerns regarding the industry of teaching English as a foreign language (EFL) in Vietnam.

He believes that the negative impact of Shark Thuy's poor management of Apax Leaders, including issues with parent tuition and teacher salaries, has led to widespread mistrust towards English language centers and institutions.

"Parents simply can't justify spending tons of money on their child's English education when they're concerned their children may never see the inside of an EFL classroom."

Alexander Wood poses for a photo with another teacher when he was still working for Apax Leaders. Photo courtesy of Wood

Alexander Wood (L) poses for a photo with another teacher when he was still working for Apax Leaders. Photo courtesy of Wood

Now that he is married to a Vietnamese woman and is a father, Williams intends to stay in Vietnam, but not so much in the education sector.

"If any opportunities outside of teaching present themselves I am more than willing to change careers."

Whitehead, who has now found a new job at an international school, said he is not looking for anywhere else to go because he is "hoping to start a family with my Vietnamese girlfriend."

"I do not think I will work for any big corporations or language centers anymore. Working for a company where I cannot go and find the boss to talk to them would be a job that I would not want to trust anymore," Whitehead stated.

As for Soni, the experience with Apax has taught him to "always be mindful of the fact that life can take unexpected turns."

"Whilst I may never see the money that I am owed by Apax, I will take solace in the prosecution of Shark Thuy and all his co-conspirators. I hope they are able to experience a comparable situation to the one they put so many people in," he said.

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