The majority of the hotel workers were Polish and the biggest barrier they faced to improving their working conditions and pay was a lack of English. This led them to establish free English as a Second Language (ESOL) and workers’ rights classes using some seed funding. The classes were a big success and EFA became a fully-fledged charity in 2009.
Unlike other ESOL classes, EFA uses an action-oriented approach to English learning influenced by Paulo Freire. The classes focus on topics which are relevant to students’ lives, usually social issues such as poor housing, children’s educational attainment, migrants’ rights or a rise in hate crime. Through a process of listening and one-to-one meetings, workers help learners identify common problems, such as overcrowding, and together work out how to tackle this, perhaps through organising public events, liaising with local politicians or starting community projects. Examples include giving testimonies about their unacceptable housing conditions at a Southwark Council meeting and producing a photography exhibition about their lives and mental health problems in Whitechapel.
EFA’s aim is to establish a sustainable hub in Hackney that will nurture local leaders and support them to take social action, and in particular to provide opportunities, particularly for those normally excluded by language, to be able to train in community organising and gain some formal recognition of these skills.