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Avoiding the Pitfalls of English Teacher Contracts

There are bad schools that will try to take advantage of new arrivals. The more you know the better you can protect yourself.

By 7 min read 11

As the current school year draws to a close and a new year dawns, we are entering a peak time for teacher recruitment not only for public school assistant language teacher (ALT) positions, but also for instructors at the various English Conversation Schools (Eikaiwa) across Japan. For many, this will be their first foray into teaching in Japan. They will be feeling a mix of excitement, nerves, confusion but most of all eagerness to get started.

However, in these circumstances, it is important to temper that enthusiasm with realism and pragmatism. Unfortunately, English teaching in Japan is not quite the cash cow it once was. As such, many schools are trying to cut costs and some of the ways this is done could take away from the teacher’s meager salary.

Today we will look at some questionable ways that some schools save on human resource costs and my personal advice on how to avoid them.

Company Accommodation

A number of smaller schools across Japan provide excellent accommodation for their teachers at a very fair price and even sort of subsidized housing. Sadly though, there are those who use this as a means of profiting off of their teachers. In my first teaching job in Tokyo many years ago, I was given a “company apartment.” In actuality it didn’t belong to the company at all but was arranged through a local realtor.

The apartment was a single room type, cramped and lacking all but the most basic of furnishings. However, in my pre-arrival orientation I had been told to expect apartments to be somewhat small and rather expensive. However, upon investigation I found that I was being charged 40% more than Japanese residents of the same building were being charged. The company also sought to impose a variety of charges upon moving out. They said this was to ensure the apartment was left in a suitable condition for the next tenant, but do they really need 30,000 yen for cleaning? I don’t think so. In the end, when I left I was able to force them to waive these charges as they did, in fact, have no legal basis.

Just be careful. A “furnished” or “corporate” apartment may not really be beneficial to the teacher. I would encourage all new teachers, where possible to arrange your own accommodation before accepting a job. It may cost you more in the short term, but it will provide far greater peace of mind in the long run. GaijinPot Apartments has a variety of properties all across Japan, many of which do not charge key money and have a relatively low move in cost.

The “long summer Vacation”

The great and terrible thing about working as an ALT are two long “vacations” during the school year. Anyone who has ever worked as an ALT will know that school goes into a state of near hibernation during the summer vacation from mid-July until early September and during the New Year holiday. Many ALT dispatch companies will tell ALTs to take this 6 weeks or so off work and use it as an opportunity to visit other parts of Japan or go home to visit their families. However in most cases the salary for this period is greatly reduced, and in an ever-increasing number of cities isn’t paid at all.

What the companies neglect to tell you of course is that you will still have to pay full rent that month, even if you live in a “company apartment”. The fact that this “long vacation” is neither paid nor optional just goes to show that it is not actually a vacation at all. It is merely another manifestation of companies looking to cut corners and maximize profits by reducing the total amount teachers are paid.

There are two ways to deal with this particular situation. One is to ask directly at the interview if the salary is consistent all year round. If the answer is no, then I would strongly urge you consider if this situation is acceptable to you. Alternatively, you can try to find a job that is a direct hire position with a board of education. In the vast majority of direct hire positions, salary is consistent all year round, though you will still be expected to report to school during the summer months.

Full time worker, Part time status

This particular pitfall is more prevalent in the Eikaiwa industry, but it is starting to creep into the ALT business too. Most English teachers in Japan can expect to work around 35 – 40 hours a week, excluding breaks, once preparation time and other administrative duties are factored in. In this regard, we can, rightfully consider ourselves full-time workers. However, there is an alarming trend emerging in the industry whereby teachers are being paid for “teaching time” only.

Anyone who has ever taught at a school tell you, being a good teacher involves a hell of a lot more than just walking into the classroom and giving your 45 minute class. Preparation takes time, as does planning, administration, assessment and level checking. Despite a working week which often runs to 40 hours or more, teachers across Japan are increasingly finding themselves presented with contracts for around 29 or 29.5 hours per week. Why is it such a precise number?

Simply put, this is the legal limit before an employee is considered “full time” which provides for more benefits to their staff. Japanese labour law differs considerably from what we may be used to in our home countries. I have already discussed the difference between full time and contract workers in a previous blog. Basically, if you work less than 30 hours per week, then you are not considered a full-time worker. As a part-time worker, you are not then entitled to the 50% health insurance and pension contributions that all companies in Japan are obligated to pay for their full time workers. However, immigration law states that all foreign workers in Japan are required to have health coverage, so you will then have to make up 100% of the cost yourself.

These employers will often say in response “But not paying health and pension means you take home more money every month”. This may be the case, but what if you have an accident? Again, I would urge teachers not to be drawn into this, and respectfully decline any offer of a contract that doesn’t offer health and pension coverage.

The Incentivized Salary

One thing to know is that some schools have now adopted an incentivized salary structure, to minimize outgoings. As with all the other items listed here, whilst it is pitched as being of benefit to the teacher, the reality is this practice only serves to maximize corporate profit.

Let’s take the example of one of my former employers. I won’t name the company here, but let’s just say it is a well-known, if not necessarily well-respected Eikaiwa chain.

When I applied for the job, the advertised salary was 265,000 per month. I thought this to be a fair amount for an entry-level position. This was 2 years ago and I was in the process of returning to Japan from Hong Kong. I interviewed and accepted the position.

Upon arriving in Japan, the contract presented to me was not for 265,000 per month, but for 170,000 per month. I was told however, that with the various incentives, I could easily make it up to the promised 265,000. The reality is, in the 6 months I was with this company, despite being a popular teacher and maintaining a busy schedule, unless I did overtime my salary never went above 240,000. This was deception, pure and simple. I would strongly urge teachers not to accept these contracts. No matter how it is presented to you, as a new teacher in Japan, you need the safety net of a guaranteed monthly income.

These contracts bring unnecessary stress and anxiety to the teacher. They also damage the company as teachers can often feel demotivated, under-valued and retain little sense of loyalty to the employer. I certainly had no qualms about jumping ship 6 months into my contract.

In closing, it is important to maintain a bit of perspective here. Teaching in Japan will undoubtedly be one of the most informative and enlightening experiences you will ever have. There are bad eggs in the English teaching business just as there are in all walks of life, but there are also plenty of good, honest employers out there who will reward your hard work and give you the respect you deserve.

To those who are looking for a job now, I wish you well. Please keep in mind what I have said here today. The more teachers reject these unfair labour practices, the more companies will be forced to re-evaluate how they write their contracts. I can already see change beginning to come, albeit slowly. I am positive about the future.

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  • primalxconvoy says:

    I’d say that the health care situation isn’t exactly bad on the employer’s behalf. Some companies do offer it, and then it’s taken straight out of your salary, leaving you with hardly anything to live off of. Also, once you’ve started to pay the national health insurance scheme, you can’t really stop paying (and it’s expensive), which is why some companies don’t want to offer it.

    As for the part time the salary. If it’s between 25-29 man for 29 hours per week, then providing that you only work around that time, I’d say you were golden. Of you are experienced enough and pragmatic, then you can easily do the work required at an Eikaiwa in the time allocated. Just mark homework quickly (without checking the listening answers, etc), write young learner reports, etc during class or during non-lesson time quickly. Don’t do a great job, but just the minimum required to make the boss not angry with your work.

    Compared to international school work (which is around the same salary), I’d say that Eikaiwa work is easy. International school teachers have to work around 8am to 6pm (or longer), during which they have to write emails to parents, check homework, set homework, wire reports, design curriculum, teach classes of up to 21 kids by themselves, clean rooms, attend meetings, work at the weekend on special school events, organise school plays, and a whole lot more.

    In the job that I’m just leaving, I changed from a full time position to part time one. My boss (the owner) wouldn’t give me a contract (after repeated requests via email were ignored) and then had the audacity to ask me to tell her whether i was going to renew my (2 year) contract only after a year because “that’s a rule of the contract” (which she refused to give me and which she refused to honour the origina). There were a number of workers at the international school there that were not given renewed part time contracts, even though the owner expected them to renew said non-existing contracts.

  • Hi! I am currently awaiting the results of an application, and the company I applied to said that the monthly rent for a single occupancy apartment would be around 55,000 yen, and that it would be automatically deducted from my salary should they hire me. I wanted to ask whether the price they quoted is fair, and that if that kind of thing is normal practice for Eikaiwa schools. Thank you very much in advance! ^_^

    • Rebecca says:

      It very much depends on the location. That would be expensive for a studio apartment in a rural place and reasonable for a studio or one room apartment in a city location – as long as it was clean.

  • Ronald Ivan says:

    Useful to know. Are there any friendly legal offices or groups that we (English teachers) can approach for counsel or support?

  • Just wondering. Are we less likely to fall into these scams if we apply to the JET program? Or, to some extent, the Interac program?

    • primalxconvoy says:

      Jet provide accommodation, which is usually cheap, although the quality varies from city to city. My place was fair (5 man for a fully furnished flat), whereas one girl lived under a road in a converted police station in the middle of nowhere with RATS rubbing around the place).

      Interac are not known for their kind or professional treatment of their workers, so tread with caution with them.

      As for flats in general, I would recommend also getting a Leo Palace or something similar yourself before you come to Japan/get a job. This is especially true if you want to live here for more than a year.

      • This actually made me wary at Interac already. I’ve been planning to be an ALT for almost a year now, and JET and Interac are the two main options I got.

        So if I get this correctly, on top of the accommodation that JET provides, it would be better if I also secure an apartment room like Leo Palace. Is that correct?

  • Devyn Mitchell Sidwell says:

    How about we start naming them and bring it to light if it’s such a problem. Just saying.

    • Rebecca says:

      I guess, for the website, it is a case of “don’t bite the hand that feeds”

  • thejade9 says:

    These scams will only get worse as Japan’s economy worsens. For right now, I wouldn’t work in Japan. Its economy is declining (increases on cost of living including food, cars, rent, and properties). Most ALTs, private ones especially, will face unpaid overtime (“voluntary overtime”), less pay (“more social taxes, pension payments”), lower benefits (“less bonus money”), and bigger classes (more than 35-40 students per class). Don’t work in Japan right now. Wait several years for the economy to improve.

  • Stupot815 says:

    Useful info, thanks. Although regarding the summer holiday thing: I have worked for a dispatch company who I won’t name but I would say that their practice regarding summer holidays falls somewhere between ideal and the nightmare situation you describe.

    On one hand, yes we received no money for August and only half a months wages for July, which hurt… A lot…

    BUT in their favour, they:

    a) were 100% transparent about this from day one (we all knew it was coming and could save accordingly),

    b) the even provided a service where they could withhold some of our earlier payment so that we wouldn’t spend it, and they would repay it in August so that we didn’t go broke (I didn’t take this offer but it could have been useful for some people) and

    c) we actually had to pay August’s rent up front at the beginning of the contract, which hurt at the time, but meant that we didn’t have to worry about it when summer came.

    So yeah, it was a hard summer and we could (and did) complain about the low wages, but there were systems in place to help out which for me went in the company’s favour.



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