Unions in Japan: Making Sure Teachers Know Their Rights
By Liam Carrigan
On February 22, 2015
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.