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How Will Japan’s New “Equal Pay” Law Affect ALTs?

This April, many Assistant Language Teachers will have a very different contract. Here are the pros and cons.

By 6 min read

While the debate rages on as to what impact the 2020 Olympic Games and the worldwide media attention that comes with it will bring to English education in Japan, branches of the government have been slowly implementing change.

Those who have ever worked for a Japanese company or within the public sector in Japan, will have noticed the large disparity that exists between seishain, or full-time workers, and their part-time-contract worker counterparts. From no sick leave to having no health insurance support from companies, part-timers and independent contractors often get the short end of the stick.

The “Equal Pay for Equal Work” legislation, formally passed by the Japanese Parliament last year and taking effect in April, aims to remedy this. It could mean fairly big changes for many types of contracted workers in Japan, including foreigners like myself who are ALTs.

Full-time vs. part-time work in Japan

Most ALTs in Japan are employed by dispatch companies.

Almost all ALTs in Japan, be they direct hires or employed via a dispatch company, fall into the category of contracted, temporary workers, despite the fact that they are basically working full-time, sometimes more, for years.

It’s well known that both ALT dispatch companies and eikaiwa put their teachers on part-time contracts despite the hours being more or less full time. Some shady companies that employ teachers as “independent contractors” don’t provide holidays or pension and insurance contributions. One notorious eikaiwa, even makes contractors pay the company per lesson missed when they want to take a day off.

The new Equal Pay for Equal Work law compels companies to offer part-time staff similar conditions to those of full-time workers, including the accompanying benefits.

The government sees this as a problem not just for foreigners working in education, but also for an increasing number of Japanese staff forced to do the same work as their full-time colleagues but with none of the job security, salary reviews, or perks that go with it.

So, the new Equal Pay for Equal Work law compels companies to offer part-time staff similar conditions to those of full-time workers, including the accompanying benefits.

How does this affect ALTs?

Well, the short answer is that it really depends on where you work and what kind of contract you are on.

One common theme among direct-hire ALTs I have spoken with is that we will now have a bonus, like those granted to our Japanese seishain colleagues. For some, this will be an annual payment of an additional one month’s salary in December. For others, there will be two bonuses paid in July and December of varying amounts.

Sadly, in some cities, this is running in tandem with an overall reduction in the monthly pay, however, the government has advised employers to ensure that any temporary worker’s new contract is not monetarily inferior to their last one, for the same job.

…it also means that your salary could vary by as much as 25% depending on how many working days are in the month.

Let me break it down for you. Let’s say a teacher takes home ¥250,000 per month (the average starting salary for an entry-level ALT).

Next year this may drop to ¥235,000. However, the teacher will receive an additional month’s salary of ¥235,000 in December.

There is a ¥180,000 reduction on the annual salary based on last year, but with a bonus of ¥235,000 paid in winter, the teacher would actually come out ¥55,000 better off than they were last year.

I should add once again that this is just an example and not indicative of all contracts across the industry. I would encourage all ALTs to speak with their contracting organizations as soon as possible, lest they find themselves with a nasty shock in April.

What are some of the cons?

The new law is, like many in Japan, vague in a number of areas and open to interpretation.  I’ve heard numerous reports across Japan where cities, in order to comply with their own interpretation of this new law, are switching from a set monthly salary to a daily or hourly one.

Switching from a monthly to an hourly salary may not be beneficial for some ALTs.

Whilst this will, in many cases, still mean a better overall annual salary for the teacher once bonuses are factored in, it also means that your salary could vary by as much as 25% depending on how many working days are in the month.

Using my own calendar as an example, some months I have as many as 23 working days, while in other months I have as low as 18. I don’t know about you, but I don’t fancy losing a quarter of my wage just because it’s the holiday season.

This may not be much different than what teachers working for dispatch ALT companies or eikawa who don’t get paid at all during long holidays like Obon and Golden Week are used to. This practice is not only unfair, but it’s borderline illegal and leaves the teacher having to struggle through those months with little pay.

The law states that temporary workers can only do the same job for three years as a temp before they must be offered the job on a full-time basis.

Another potential flaw in this new system is that it may actually exacerbate one of the problems it was devised to combat—the lack of permanent employment opportunities for temporary staff.

The law states that temporary workers can only do the same job for three years as a temp before they must be offered the job on a full-time basis. However, there are a number of loopholes in the law in its current form that allow employers to potentially get around this obligation and this is especially pertinent for ALTs.

A dispatch ALT can always be reassigned at the start of a new school year, such reassignment could be framed contractually as a new position.

Even direct hires aren’t immune to this, with a number of cities I have spoken with declaring their intent to, in essence, create a new position for the ALT every year to ensure they never reach the threshold of three consecutive years in the same position.

Working as an ALT can be an incredibly rewarding job, but job conditions aren’t always fair to the teacher.

Finally, and probably most importantly, there is that most common of all flaws in Japanese law—the lack of enforcement. At the moment, no specific penalty has been specified for those employers who don’t comply with this new law, hence why a number of employers may be planning to ignore it.

This new law was clearly devised with good intentions, and perhaps future revisions will close its numerous loopholes.

From an ALT’s viewpoint, next year will be an upheaval, both in the classroom and on the contract, but hopefully, if you are with a reputable employer, it’ll be a profitable one.

If you’re an ALT in Japan, do you know how the new employment law will affect you next year? How do you feel about it? Let us know in the comments.

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