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Forward Together: 5 Ways to Build Bridges Between Teachers and Dispatch Companies

Sometimes, simple steps can make a big difference — like these ideas for helping ALTs and dispatch companies in Japan reach more mutually beneficial relationships.

By 8 min read

When it comes to Japan’s online sphere, one area where it seems you’re always just one comment away from a full-on flame war is with the issue of ALT dispatch companies. Being an assistant language teacher can sometimes be awesome, other times, not so much — and people have very strong opinions depending on their past experiences.

Like many of today’s political issues, there are extremists on both sides of the argument. There are those who see any form of concession to workers as a form of communism, while at the other end of the spectrum there are those who refuse to give “capitalist”  companies any credit at all — even when said companies do something that is clearly of benefit to its employees.

The fact is, businesses need to make money, but then again teachers also need to earn a livable wage. It seems, however, that among those who have been in Japan for more than a year or two, goodwill towards dispatch companies is in short supply.

Basically in Japan, there are two main forms of ALT employment. The first is direct hire through a local board of education or a government supported scheme like the JET Programme. The second is by ALT dispatch, where a recruitment firm acts as the middleman placing you with a board of education or private school and takes a hefty cut of your salary in return. This business model, naturally, creates a disparity where direct hire ALTs tend to have superior contract conditions to those of dispatch ALTs, despite doing basically the same job. I think you can understand why such a model breeds a certain degree of resentment from teachers.

So, what can be done to heal these wounds? What steps could these companies take that would restore teachers’ confidence in them, without hurting their own profits?

It certainly isn’t easy, but in today’s post, I’d like to look at a few simple ideas that I think could go a long way toward making everyone a bit happier.

1. Establish industry best practices

The way in which each of the major ALT dispatch companies in Japan conducts its affairs seems to vary drastically among them. Some pay an hourly rate, some daily, and some pay a monthly salary. Some have paid vacations and some don’t. What’s needed is a uniformity, a commitment to compliance and an openness. For this to work, the leading companies in the sector would need to talk to each other to establish some ground rules (easier said than done, I know, but these are ideas and meant to be discussed and worked on… )

For example, it isn’t right that some cities pay teachers less than ¥200,000 a month, while elsewhere they can earn close to ¥300,000 for what is, essentially, the same job.

Of course there should be slight variations according to the living costs of a particular location, but not to this extreme degree. Agreeing on an industry wide pay framework and standard working hours would go a long way to ending these anomalies.

2. Build more holidays into contracts

Holidays are an easy way to keep workers happy. It doesn’t cost the company any extra money to give you a few days off when there are no classes. And provided they don’t try to cut salaries, it’s a win for employees, too.

In my research I’ve found that many of the smaller, regional dispatch companies pay a consistent salary all year round. Most of the larger, national firms, though, do not. Again, if it was a universally established practice that all companies would invoice boards of education for the same amount all year round — which many of them do anyway — then they could easily afford to pay teachers a full salary in summer without any damage to their bottom line.

3. Advertise job descriptions honestly

This next point is perhaps the one that causes the most aggravation among teachers, but is probably the easiest fixed. When a company advertises a job, it should be honest about the conditions.

If the salary isn’t consistent all year round, say so in the offer. If commuting expenses to and from the work location aren’t included, say so.

By far the biggest individual gripe I hear from teachers again and again is that what they thought they were signing up for didn’t match with the job they ended up doing.  It’s easy to turn around and say to a teacher six months down the line, “Well, you should have read the small print.” But an amicable contract shouldn’t have buried line items. It should be clear, concise, fully understood and agreed on by the teacher and the people doing the hiring before it is signed. Also, reasonable employers should be open to negotiation.

… among those who have been in Japan for more than a year or two, goodwill towards dispatch companies is in short supply.

Again, this doesn’t cost any money to fix and it would go a long, long way to improving teachers’ perceptions of the dispatch companies — and the industry in general.

4. Adopt faster payroll procedures

When I relocated to Nagano in April, my new apartment, like most new rentals, was basically a shell. It had floors, it had lights and that was basically it. In addition to moving costs, I had to buy a new bed, air conditioner, new furniture and that’s before you factor in setup costs for internet, utilities and other such things. Quite frankly, it destroyed most of my ready money.

Luckily, I got my first full wage a mere two weeks after I arrived and that helped immensely — I didn’t have to wait another  month and a half to receive my first pay.

Many Japanese companies in the education sector pay their staff in the same month that they work. For example, my payday is on the 16th of each month, so I received my first month’s salary on April 16 after only starting work on April 1. In these scenarios, basically you’re getting your full wage two weeks in advance. This is not always the case, but my own research and experience shows that a number of schools, universities and colleges in Japan pay their teachers this way.

Here are a couple of examples from universities in Tokyo:

Now, had I been working for a dispatch company, where usually payment is made the following month, I probably wouldn’t have received any money until the middle or end of May.

Again, this is not a wholesale change, merely an adoption of a fairly common practice that would go a long way to easing the financial burden — especially on new teachers — who will have to hand out hundreds of thousands of yen in their first couple of months just to get settled in.

Of course, it’s the individual’s responsibility to ensure they have adequate funds before they relocate, but an early payday would help out new teachers considerably. It’s a good, hassle-free way for the company to show that they care about their employees. A little goodwill goes a long way.

5. Budget and allow for sick days

This last one may sound a bit cheeky, considering it isn’t something that’s legally mandated in Japan, nor is it standard practice.

I’m referring to sick days. Now, I have one week of sick leave in my current contract, but this is very much the exception rather than the rule in Japan. However, I’ll be honest: when I saw that, alongside the very generous 20 days of annual leave, it swayed me to accept this offer ahead of others. The fact is, kids are germ magnets. As an ALT, visiting perhaps half a dozen schools each week, you are exposed to more germs than any of your Japanese counterparts. This should be reflected in some kind of sick leave provision when you get ill. Again, it doesn’t cost any money, since most schools will have you make up any missed classes later, ensuring no lost teaching hours. It also makes for a much happier and more trusting relationship between employer and employee.

Of course, for these points to work, it’s important that we play our parts, too. Goodwill isn’t a one way street. If you want your company to treat you better, you as a teacher also need to show that you are worthy of that trust.

I keep a list of companies I would recommend to new teachers and also a list of companies I would suggest they avoid. However, everyone’s experience is different. Why, just last week, I had a back-and-forth discussion online with someone who steadfastly defended a company almost everyone else — myself included — universally derided.

Did they really have a truly rewarding experience there or was it just a bad case of Stockholm Syndrome? I guess we’ll never know. The cynic in me thinks he may not have been completely truthful about when his time with that company ended.

My point is this: what I consider to be a terrible company may turn out to be a fine one for you, depending on your own ambitions and personal circumstances or vice versa. Be cautious, but at the same time: keep an open mind. You need to figure out what work situation works the best for you.

Do you have any constructive ideas for making the hiring process and working relationship better between ALT dispatch companies and employees? Let us know in the comments (and please keep it positive and practical)!

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