Unions in Japan: Making Sure Teachers Know Their Rights

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Before I begin this post, I must declare a vested interest. I am a proud member of a labour union and I am a passionate supporter of those who fight to defend the rights of workers in Japan and elsewhere around the world. Furthermore I will add that what I say from this point onward is my own opinion and not necessarily representative of my employers and I am probably afflicted with a certain degree of political bias. For that, I shall apologize in advance.

Now that that’s out of the way, I shall begin.

Those of us who, like me, have worked in Japan for more than a few years will have noticed the steep decline in working conditions for English teachers. While on the face of it the salaries being offered by the various language school chains and public school ALT recruiting agencies may still seem quite competitive, it is undeniable that they are not what they once were. The baseline salaries have dropped an average of 20,000 ~ 30,000 yen per month compared with when I first started in this business back in 2006.

However, it is not only in terms of bottom line pay that conditions have declined. Pension contributions, holiday entitlements and sick care provisions have also been stripped away. Increasingly, some companies are now no longer even willing to recognize their teachers as employees, instead referring to them in their contracts as independent contractors.

The definition may seem nothing more than simple semantics to the uninitiated, however this different distinction allows companies to legally withhold the benefits that ordinary employees would in most cases take for granted, such as annual holiday entitlements, health insurance and pension enrolment and so on. It also makes it far easier for companies to get rid of these workers, often on the flimsiest of excuses.

So with these large corporations seeming holding all the cards, who is there to fight for the little guy?

Although worker’s rights in Japan may seem to be far less respected than they are in certain other countries, employment law in Japan is actually quite robust. Rather it is a lack of awareness of the law than a lack of appropriate legal protections that can often land new teachers in Japan in trouble.

I first joined a union back in 2008 and I am happy to say I have been protected in a number of issues since then. Issues such as bullying by a manager, unacceptable working conditions, unpaid overtime and various other small issues were resolved thanks to the hard work and professionalism of my union.

Sadly, given the often over-eager nature of young, inexperienced English teachers coming to Japan, coupled with companies’ collective desperation to maximize profits and minimize outgoings, there is a perfect storm brewing in which new teachers can often find themselves being systematically abused by their employers on a number of fronts. Unions can fight to prevent these abuses, both by ensuring the labour law is followed to the letter and also through collective bargaining.

Collective bargaining is an annual negotiation which by law must be held between the employer and recognized unions. In these negotiations concessions such as improved job security, more annual leave and sometimes even increased salary can be secured.

I am a member of the General Union, which is based in Osaka and boasts branches in most of the major Eikaiwa (language school) and Haken (ALT dispatch) companies in Japan. I would recommend you do some research to see which union best serves your type of work in your specific region. Monthly dues need to be paid, but the amount you pay will be dependent on your earnings and is usually not much.

One disturbing trend in recent years has been the appearance of in-house unions at some of the language school chains in Japan. These unions have a membership exclusively comprised of teachers from that particular company who will in turn be represented by an appointed representative to negotiate with senior management on points of contention. Union membership dues are then deducted directly from the salaries of all employees each month. Membership is often mandatory.

Whilst the idea of being able to negotiate directly with management on problems may seem a good idea, this model has a number of flaws. One, the union representatives are often selected by the company rather than by the membership, leading to obvious possibilities of nepotism and allegations that they are merely “yes men” for the company.

Additionally, without any kind of independent oversight, it is hard to see how fairness in a disciplinary situation could be maintained. Independent unions are, I believe the only way to ensure fairness for the worker in such disputes. But of course unions are often perceived in the media as radical, left wing organizations whose very existence causes instability in the workplace and sets up an atmosphere of confrontation, and mistrust of management.

I don’t believe this to be true, rather I believe that for teachers in Japan active and open union membership actually protects people from these very things, and ensures an atmosphere of mutual respect and dignity at the workplace.

This is an issue that is sure to spark some heated opinions from both sides, so please, leave a comment and tell me what you think.

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Teacher, journalist and now blogger.
  • Nishan Thapa says:

    Is there any person or organizations who fights for labour in japan??? I am in some trouble ….

  • Unionizor says:

    Good article.

    I think unions are really important and it’s sad that more teachers aren’t in them since they’re obviously much needed in the teaching industry with wages and conditions being squeezed as they are.

    Everyone needs someone to stick up for them and ensure that they’re afforded every protection and benefit under the law, regardless of their job, level of experience or even level of enthusiasm. The law is a baseline minimum for all employees. The idea that if someone doesn’t like the conditions, they should just leave is reductionist, immature, offensive to hard working teachers and in the case where the law is not being met, supports illegal behaviour on the part of the employers.

    The economy in Japan may not be as strong as it was and nor is the birthrate, but that is no reason to just sit back and let bad stuff happen. I often hear schools saying that they pay “the market rate” for teachers. Another way of phrasing that is “we pay as little as we can get away with”. There is no incentive for them to pay more and no upwards pressure on wages, thus the market rate inches lower and lower. Let’s face it; even if the economy comes back over night, schools wouldn’t just magically start paying more!

    The other thing I hear, as addressed in this article, is the argument that unions hurt companies and maybe even students. That’s ridiculous. Unions aren’t against companies, they’re for employees. Anything that’s good for teachers is ultimately good for students. Doesn’t it make sense that an employee who’s paid well, has adequate preparation time and sensible breaks is going to be more motivated and deliver better classes?

    I’d like to see an end to schools squeezing their staff for everything they’re worth and start following the law, and there’s only one way that’s going to happen: we need to work together.

    • Jamming James says:

      Generally speaking, as long as it remains as easy as it is for native English speakers to find disposable teaching positions, there will always be a supply of ‘teachers’ available to fill the positions. And these short-term visitors are the ones who end up inadvertently setting the market prices with their cheap labor and high supply.

      The real way to battle the dropping wages isn’t to unionize the workforce, but to limit how easy it is for non-qualified teachers to come here to teach, and to limit how easy it is for fly-by-night schools to operate. This would create issues for unqualified teachers, like myself, but would vastly increase the quality of native English-speaking teachers that would exist in Japan; although Japan would need to have systems in place to deal with this drop in supply.

      And honestly, good luck getting short-term teachers to join a union.

      • Unionizor says:

        Well, good luck getting ANYONE to join a union, really!

        Part of that problem is the one year contracts, but that’s maybe for another thread.

        I can’t argue that it would help if people weren’t willing to come over in droves and these “fly by night” schools hiring them, and to an extent people taking these salaries setting the market price, but it’s the school’s themselves which offer the salaries in the first place. Given that this is the situation we’re facing (with a steady influx of fresh recruits), who is going to try and push salaries up?

        If everyone who stayed for over 2 years joined a union (BIG ask, I know), you’d create two markets: one of experienced, unionised teachers and one of travellers.

        One has the clout to push wages up a bit and in theory gives better lessons, the other works for less.
        Then you’ve got your two schools: Fly by nights with a revolving door of teachers, another with experienced and motivated teachers.

        As I say, I can’t say my way is the only way to create better conditions because it’s not true, but it is a viable and proactive, if slightly hopeful option.

      • Unionizor says:

        Well, good luck getting ANYONE to join a union, really!

        Part of that problem is the one year contracts, but that’s maybe for another thread.

        I can’t argue that it would help if people weren’t willing to come over in droves and these “fly by night” schools hiring them, and to an extent people taking these salaries setting the market price, but it’s the school’s themselves which offer the salaries in the first place. Given that this is the situation we’re facing (with a steady influx of fresh recruits), who is going to try and push salaries up?

        If everyone who stayed for over 2 years joined a union (BIG ask, I know), you’d create two markets: one of experienced, unionised teachers and one of travellers.

        One has the clout to push wages up a bit and in theory gives better lessons, the other works for less.
        Then you’ve got your two schools: Fly by nights with a revolving door of teachers, another with experienced and motivated teachers.

        As I say, I can’t say my way is the only way to create better conditions because it’s not true, but it is a viable and proactive, if slightly hopeful option.

        • Jamming James says:

          I agree with you. I have never been one to bang the union drum, but if there is one industry that could really benefit from having a good union, it would be an English-teachers union.

          I can understand where you are coming from; by forcing schools to raise their pay and work conditions, it would encourage more qualified teachers to come to Japan, as well as encourage those of us who like teaching but have no reason to get teaching qualifications, to go out and actually get some teaching qualifications. It would be a positive step for the English industry in Japan.

          However, I feel that these ideas aren’t realistic.The only real way a union could work is, like you said, if everyone joined them. The truth is, as long as there is a steady supply of new teachers on hand in a industry with a low barrier to entry, there is no real reason for a company to do more than it real has to, outside of ethics.

  • Liam Carrigan says:

    Actually no, much less. I recently heard of a full time ALT job at a high school, paying 190,000 per month. I have seen it go as low as 170,000.

    • HayesOose says:

      Sorry, I misread: You were saying that the salaries *dropped* “¥20,000 – ¥30,000, I somehow mistook that for you saying that salaries were *at* that amount.

      I’ve seen some very low salaries on offer as well…

    • HayesOose says:

      The article said “¥20,000 – ¥30,000.” That’s what I was referring to.

  • Liam Carrigan says:

    Hi Alex,
    If you visit the General Union website, linked in the article, you’ll find all the details you need there. I used to teach Eikaiwa in Osaka before too and the GU are very helpful in this regard.

  • To be fair, the whole Japanese economy is in decline. Get a telecommuting job from the US and enjoy a 16% discount off everything 😉

  • John Debacco says:

    Alt are not really teachers. They are entertainers meant to expose rural students to the outside world. I did my tour as alt in order to learn about education in Japan and moved on quickly to start my own school. The methods and curriculum are clearly not meant to teach English language. Students must attend private schools if they want to be proficient in English.

    • David Joiny says:

      Alting can be awesome though. I’ve seen many terrific, gifted alts in my time here in Japan.

    • Gregor says:

      This guy is right. I am the hiring manager for an international school in Tokyo and have interviewed hundreds of applicants over the past few years. The reality is that most ALT’s are travelers, Japanese language learners, or lovers of Japanese culture first, and teachers second (if at all). We foreigners are fortunate that the very fact that that we speak English is a marketable quality, but don’t you think that students deserve more than that. Teaching is too important a responsibility to place in the hands of the untrained, and unfortunately the Japanese education system doesn’t seem to realize that.
      BTW if you are feeling like you are doing the best you can with little or no resources or supervisory support then you are in in the wrong working environment. If you are too scared to quit and risk moving back home then you need to reassess whether you are in Japan to teach or teaching to be in Japan.

      • Jamming James says:

        In an ideal world I would love to go back to my home country, retrain as a qualified teacher and then return to a better job in Japan, but the reality is that option doesn’t exist for a lot of us. I am not afraid of risk if I can see a benefit to taking it; only a fool would give up everything for a reward is too small or unlikely. And, currently the English-teaching market is too overcrowded, even at the university level. So amassing debt to gain a qualification that will in all likelihood go unused isn’t a smart decision. I mean, there is little benefit to being a trained chef in an industry where 95% of the positions are in fast food restaurants, and you have to compete with 100 other chefs for that 1 other position.

        I have met quite a few teachers in Japan who caught the teaching bug and were lucky enough to have the option to return to their countries to retrain as qualified teachers, only to remain in their home countries to teach when they realized that the benefits and rewards of doing so are heads and shoulders above anything they could get by returning to Japan. There is almost no reason why you would leave a respectable job where you are earning a respectable wage to come here to fight hard for the same quality of life. So, when the good teachers have better options elsewhere, you are left with those who will accept the pay and conditions that are being offered. The equilibrium is the way it is not because the good teachers don’t want to come here, but because the good teachers just have no reason to.

        To use an overused phrase “If you pay peanuts, you get monkeys”.

      • Jinx15 says:

        If you look at classroom activities recommended by the most popular alt websites the emphasis is entirely on entertainment. Games games and more games. Anything to fill 45mins for the lazy ‘teacher’.

        I think that the students deserve much more than that.

    • Mark Guthrie says:

      I disagree, it depend on how you impose yourself in the classroom and workplace. Yes, some JTs may want to utilise you as some kind of dancing monkey (a role that unfortunately far too many ALTs seem happy to conform to), but if you buck this idea by creating useful lessons and even making full annual curriculums for your classes it can be extremely worthwhile for the students and you can see vast improvements.

      • Liam Carrigan says:

        Mark I’m inclined to agree with you. I know plenty of ALTs who, while they may not always have formal teaching certification, are some of the finest educators ive ever had the privilege of working with. How much or how little an ALT can do in the classroom really is at the whim of the Japanese teachers they work with.
        ALTs get an unfairly bad rep in my opinion. We do the best we can often with little or no resources or supervisory support.

        • Jamming James says:

          I agree. The biggest hurdle with being an ALT is that it really is up to the Japanese teachers in regards to how they want to use the ALTs in the classroom. I am fortunate to very rarely be used as a human tape-recorder, but at the same time my role in the classroom changes dramatically not only between schools, but also between the teachers at each school.

          I have classes where I am given the reins and only a general direction, and can shape the lessons to how I see fit by providing lessons that have proven to be more entertaining and effective than the stock lesson plans. However, I also have teachers who use me minimally, or to fill time, and so I am at the mercy of their interest and desire to actually teach English, and not just tick the box on their worksheet to say that English was ‘taught’ that day.

          The truth is, some elementary school teachers have no desire to teach a lanaguage they themselves can’t speak and/or have no interest in, and it’s usually these teachers that care the least and are either the best to work with because of how much freedom you are given, or the worst to work with if their attitude poisons the atmosphere.

          This is why it often annoys me when I see people online telling other people who are interested in becoming ALTs how bad it is, or why it isn’t a good job, when really what most of them mean is that THEIR experience hasn’t been good, but are so furious with the way things are at thier schools, they brush all schools, Japanese-teachers and ALTs with that same brush. I have good schools and bad, I have great teachers and poor ones. The truth is, it varies so much it’s hard to give an accurate description of what to expect.

          And for me, this unstable job environment makes it difficult to give a strong opinion to help would-be ALTs, but also makes it hard to recommend the position, especially if you are specifically interested in the teaching aspect to being an ALT.

  • shima says:

    “the union representatives are often selected by the company”
    Just curious. Who do you mean by “the company”?

    • Liam Carrigan says:

      Sorry, maybe i didnt explain clearly, when I say the company I mean the employer, in this case the language school itself.

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