|

Assistant language teachers in trying times

by Kanako Takahara

Last of four parts

In November, Samantha Bouton, an assistant language teacher working at a public elementary school in the rural town of Shibayama, Chiba Prefecture, had a fever of 38.5 degrees and was diagnosed as suffering bronchitis.

Because of her illness, Bouton, a 25-year-old U.S. native from Oregon who has been teaching in Japan’s public schools since 2004, had to take leave for two weeks.

But her employer, Interac, a temp staff dispatch agency and leading provider of ALTs in Japan, told her she had already used up her seven days of annual paid leave — less than the 12 days she is entitled to under labor law — to cover the days she was sick.

“I went in every morning and the vice principal would take my temperature, cancel every class and send me home,” said Bouton, a contract worker at Interac, adding she had hoped that if she was sent home by the school, she would get sick leave. But her paycheck showed her salary was deducted for the days she took leave.

That and other poor working conditions for Interac employees was enough to convince Bouton and her husband, Greg Diamond, who also works for Interac as an ALT, that it is not worth working in Japan anymore. The couple plan to return to the United States in April.

“I have worked here from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. minimum. And after three years, I still don’t have social insurance, I haven’t gotten a bonus and I haven’t gotten a raise,” Diamond lamented.

ALTs are native English language teachers who offer assistance to Japanese teachers to help improve the oral communication skills of students in public and private elementary, junior high and high schools.

In the past, ALTs were recruited through the government-sponsored Japan Exchange and Teaching Program. But as the coffers of local governments began to dwindle in recent years, many switched from JET program ALTs to those cheaper private companies outsource.

According to the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, the number of JET program ALTs dropped to 5,057 in fiscal 2006 from 5,676 in fiscal 2002, while non-JET ALTs doubled to 5,951 in fiscal 2006 from 3,090 in fiscal 2002.

Currently, English language is a compulsory subject in junior high schools, but demand for ALTs is expected to increase in the future because English will become mandatory for fifth-graders in elementary schools starting in 2011.

But the lower cost of company ALTs comes at the expense of the teachers’ low salaries and lack of benefits, including health insurance, unemployment insurance, pension and less paid leave.

“It makes Nova working conditions look like paradise,” said Louis Carlet, deputy secretary general at the National Union of General Workers Tokyo Nambu, referring to Nova Corp., the nation’s biggest language school before it went under in October.

Nova teachers who suddenly lost their jobs were left in limbo, with some unable to pay their rent or even to afford daily necessities. But others found re-employment at G.education Co., which took over part of Nova’s business.

But G.education said in December it can only hire 200 more employees in addition to the 1,447 it has so far employed, a reversal of its earlier promise to hire all former teachers and Japanese staff at Nova.

Despite the difficulties Nova teachers went through, Carlet said Nova’s working conditions, when it was in business, were much better than those for private company ALTs. The pay of private ALTs is lower, they have contracts of less than a year and they don’t get paid during school vacation periods, he said.

Carlet blamed local boards of education, saying they simply want to avoid the responsibility of hiring foreigners by subcontracting the work to private companies. Under the system, the boards sign contracts with private firms that hire foreign teachers as ALTs.

“If they hire them directly, it means they have responsibility for their employment, and if something happens, they have to deal with it directly,” Carlet said. “What they want is to have all those problems, especially those hiring foreigners, pushed onto the private companies.”

Some boards of education choose private ALT dispatch agencies through a bidding process, forcing them to cut costs further, he said.

The fact that the ALTs are hired as contract workers instead of full-time employees also makes their position insecure.

Companies need to enroll part-time employees in the social insurance system if they work more than three-fourths of full-time employee working hours, or 30 hours a week.

But since the firms want to avoid shouldering additional benefit costs, they ask ALTs to work less than 30 hours or count the working hours by the number of lessons they teach instead of the number of hours they spend in the workplace.

Some ALTs who just want to work for a year or two in Japan prefer not being enrolled in the social insurance system to avoid paying insurance premiums and have higher take-home wages. But those seeking a longer stay tend to seek better benefits.

David Ashton, president of the Nambu Foreign Workers Caucus of the Tokyo Nambu Union, said ALTs’ limited Japanese language ability makes it hard for them to realize their rights or take action.

“If they get fired for some invalid reason, they go from one low-paid, poor-condition ALT job to another one,” Ashton said. “There are always more (teachers) ready to take the job because they just left another job.”

The working conditions of company ALTs are in sharp contrast with JET program teachers. The government-sponsored exchange program was launched in 1987 to boost relationships at the grassroots level amid fierce trade friction between Japan and the U.S.

The JET program offers generous working conditions to encourage foreigners to apply. They are given a monthly salary of ¥300,000, are covered by social insurance and given up to 20 days of paid holidays in addition to sick leave.

“The condition in Kamagaya is really, really good,” said James Chenery, 29, a JET program teacher in Kamagaya, Chiba Prefecture, who came from Northern Ireland to Japan three years ago.

Wages and benefits are not the only thing Chenery is talking about.

The overall working conditions have allowed him to become part of the local community. In his spare time, he teaches English at community centers and is given Japanese lessons by volunteers.

Because he only covers three schools in the district, he gets to know students better.

Private company ALTs, however, tend to be dispatched to dozens of schools, hopping from one school to another. This makes it hard for teachers to become attached to students they teach.

Asked what his plans are after the maximum five years as an ALT in the JET program are up, Chenery said he hopes his Japanese will have improved well enough by then for him to find another job here.

Meanwhile, local boards of education have started to realize they cannot get competent, experienced teachers either by subcontracting to private firms or through the JET program because many of them come to Japan just out of college without any background in education.

Taito Ward in Tokyo said it plans to stop outsourcing ALTs to private companies. It is considering advertising for candidates on its Web site and asking them to give a presentation on the kind of lessons they plan to offer as part of its screening process.

The city of Musashino on the outskirts of Tokyo plans to seek applicants among native English speakers who live in the area instead of subcontracting from private companies.

Ashton of the Nambu union said the best way to improve the quality of English teachers and subsequently the standards of English in Japanese schools is to stop outsourcing to private companies.

Ashton noted that the standard of English language education will not improve if the dispatching companies keep sending people who have just arrived in the country with no teaching experience.

“If (the government) wants to improve the quality of language in the public and private school system, the best thing is to hire qualified teachers, compensate them well, give them opportunities for training and give them job security so they’ll want to keep working here,” Ashton said.