Every year, thousands of teachers take up jobs overseas in search of new professional challenges and exciting experiences. But rather than finding travel and adventure, many end up as the victims of exploitation, threats and even trafficking, according to a major international study on teacher migration.
The research shows that some teachers are being paid significantly less than their local colleagues and are denied personal and professional support. In the worst cases, teachers can end up handing over as much as $20,000 (pound;11,900) to recruitment agents and other intermediaries, with some complaining of intimidation and harassment if they fail to pay up.
Of more than 1,300 surveyed teachers, working in 127 host countries, 34 per cent said discrimination was a major or moderate challenge. Almost a quarter (23 per cent) were paid less than their local colleagues, while 18 per cent were paid more.
"This suggests a strong tendency to create tiers of status between migrant and local teachers, and is an alarming and important trend to watch," according to the study compiled by Education International (EI), a federation of teaching unions.
In the survey, which covered developing and industrialised nations, the biggest reason teachers gave for moving abroad was professional development (37 per cent); 26 per cent wanted to see the world, while the same proportion admitted that better pay was their primary motivation.
But the report also warns of unscrupulous agencies. "When a position abroad promises to substantially increase a teacher's earnings, then recruiters often feel that they can charge higher fees [and] employers may be tempted to pay lower wages that will still be comparatively attractive," it says.
Almost a quarter of respondents paid a placement fee to secure their job abroad; of these, 25 per cent took out a loan to cover the costs. One in five paid $5,000 or more, while 18 per cent complained that their contract was unfair and 36 per cent said their legal rights in the host country were not made clear.
Recruiters offering jobs in the US routinely charge teachers from developing nations between $5,000 and $20,000, according to the American Federation of Teachers, which contributed to the study. Many firms "mislead teachers by encouraging inflated and inaccurate expectations about life abroad", the report says.
"All too frequently, recruiters have also intimidated teachers, forced them into housing contracts, misrepresented their pay, charged inflated fees, required them to use predatory lenders and threatened to rescind their visas," it adds.
In December 2012, Los Angeles-based Universal Placement International was ordered to pay back $4.5 million to 350 Filipino teachers it had placed at schools in Louisiana, after misrepresenting its fees and violating employment laws.
The EI report, published last week, also criticises agencies targeting teachers from South Africa to work in UK schools. The recruiters, it says, are "selling schools a low-cost, low-hassle `solution' to their teacher shortage problems while, in many cases, encouraging teachers to see registration as a first step to a fun-filled life of travel and adventure".
It adds: "The sites were notably absent in frank discussions of the real challenges of working abroad, such as classroom management or pupils with English as a second language."
Sid Rose, who left the UK in 2012 to take up a teaching job in Kazakhstan, was deported under armed guard within two hours of arriving because the agency he used had failed to complete his visa paperwork correctly. "It was disturbing and frightening," he said. "The employer then tried to dock me the three days' pay I had missed due to my deportation." Mr Rose called on agencies "to do much more to inform and protect the employees they send overseas".
The Council of British International Schools, which has more than 170 schools in 59 countries, works with only 10 established recruiters, but chief executive Colin Bell told TES that not all schools were as discerning. "Some of them are just out to make money from teachers," he said. "We've heard about teachers landing in another country and having a contract put in front of them that is in a foreign language. They don't know what it is."
But migration is, for most people, a positive experience, he insisted. "There's a misapprehension that teaching abroad will damage your career. But you have to choose wisely."