Standing Up for Teachers’ Rights in Japan

By Brian Covert
Staff Writer

Teachers of English in Japan are often viewed as having a plum of a job in that they get paid to simply sit in a classroom and do what comes most naturally — talk.

But there is another seldom-seen side to it: English schools often get away with such illegal acts as holding back teachers’ salaries, firing the teaching staff at will and forcing instructors to work without pay.

When conditions at a Kansai-area English school get that bad, it becomes Simon Cole’s business.

Cole is vice-president of a 120-member labor union called the
General Union, an Osaka affiliate of the 10,000-member National Union of General Workers (Zenkoku-Ippan).

He and his comrades in the General Union are often called in to help settle issues pertaining to the rights of teachers and other types of foreign workers in the region. The union, with about 60 English teachers in its ranks, is now mediating four such major cases involving well-known English schools.

“Our success record is very good at present. There are very few cases where we couldn’t actually help the person,” says Cole, 34, who was active in labor union issues in his native Britain before coming to Japan three years ago.

According to Cole, who has been with the union two years, the most common ongoing violations of labor laws by English schools in Kansai and elsewhere include:

• Firing teachers on the spot, without the required 30-day notice of termination/resignation or 30 days’ compensatory pay;

• Withholding teachers’ salaries for whatever reason;

• Depriving teachers of an automatic 10-days’ paid holiday leave after one year with the company;

• Forcing teachers to work more than 40 regular hours per week via split shifts or by putting them on call; and

• Taking money out of teachers’ wages if they leave before expiration of the signed contract.

The violators come in all shapes and sizes, from the relatively unknown mom-and-pop operations to the more well-known companies publicized daily in the mass media.

In some of the worst cases the General Union has received, some teachers in Kansai have reported showing up for work only to find their small schools had closed up shop and virtually disappeared — along with their salaries.

In another case, a company reportedly recruited teachers from overseas with promises of “full living accommodations.” The teachers who jumped at the chance soon found themselves in Japan sleeping atop desks in the school’s classroom.

The biggest obstacle to dealing with these problems, according to Cole, is not so much the schools themselves as it is the teachers who — out of ignorance of their labor rights or out of fear, or both — let the schools get away with such unethical or outright illegal conduct.

“I would say most teachers would be
very surprised when they find out how many rights they actually have, and what a trade union can do to help them if they have a problem,” Cole said. “I was very surprised when I found out these rights.”

Those rights, he says, may actually be more protected under Japanese labor regulations than in a teacher’s native country.

Cole stresses above all that no matter how bad the working relationship between a school’s management and a foreign teacher becomes, at least two major pieces of legislation covering such problems — the Labor Standards Law and the Labor Union Law — work in favor of teachers by taking precedence over any signed contract and protecting foreign workers’ rights just like those of Japanese workers.

“You cannot sign away your legal rights,” he said. “Don’t be scared that somehow you’d be liable for breach of contract.” The legal position of teachers, he stresses, is “a lot, lot stronger than they think.”

Cole adds that the General Union never turns away any complaint about possible violations of teachers’ and others workers’ rights, offering general advice if the teacher is a non-union member and getting more involved legally if the person belongs to the union, which costs 800 yen per month.

More information about Kansai-area teachers’ rights can be obtained by calling the General Union at (06) 6352-9619.