Troubled Nova staff slams work conditions

by Setsuko Kamiya

Nova Corp. teachers and other employees in Tokyo criticized the company Tuesday, saying the troubled chain of foreign-language schools must improve its business not just so it becomes more honest with customers but also for the sake of its workers.

At a news conference, Nova union members also demanded that the firm provide better working conditions for the Osaka-based chain’s roughly 5,000 teachers at its branches nationwide. Although teaching English is Nova’s mainstay, it also offers lessons in other foreign languages.

The rank and file said Nova must improve its thorny relations with its union if the chain hopes to survive the current crisis, in which it was slapped with a six-month ban on offering new long-term student contracts.

“A couple of months ago, (Nova President Nozomu) Sahashi issued a statement asking all the teachers to be friendly with their students and greet them with big smiles,” said Thomas Reichl, the union president, who has been teaching German for 13 years. “We say to Mr. Sahashi, please lead by example and give us something to smile about.”

The union has been fighting Nova for three years to secure a stable work environment in which its teachers can have indefinite or long-term employment agreements instead of annual renewals, and to allow teachers to qualify for social security insurance.

According to the union, negotiations with Nova began in 2004, but when the talks failed to produce results it began organizing strikes and protests the following year. In 2006, the union took its case to the Tokyo Labor Relations Board.

As the largest language school chain in Japan, Nova’s practices effectively set the industry standard, the union said, adding that improved conditions would benefit the entire sector.

Last week, the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry imposed a six-month ban on new customer contracts with more than a one-year duration, or more than 70 hours of lessons, because the company engaged in deceptive business practices that affected many of its students.

The violations included distributing pamphlets claiming students, after they sign their lesson contract, can schedule classes at any time or branch, when in fact there was a shortage of teachers at times of peak demand.

Branches were also allegedly reneging on contract cooling-off period reimbursements.

Reichl said the teacher shortage stems from high turnover. Nova teachers who are recruited overseas only stay around eight months because they become disillusioned with their jobs, he said, adding this results in poor teaching standards.

Briton Robert Tench, an English teacher and union treasurer, described the complaints he has received from students.

“I walked in and said ‘Long time no see,’ and then the student said she was not able to reserve any class,” he said.

Tench said the firm may be deliberately keeping teacher numbers low to cut payroll corners.

For related stories:

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Nova probed over refunds, deception

Nova’s policy on cancellations illegal: top court