What would you do if you were sacked for “clicking your pen too much in class,” or for “talking to yourself during your break” . . . or how about for “only eating the topping on your rice during lunch?”

These are all actual reasons given for showing English teachers the door, says Louis Carlet, who works for a union representing several hundred language teachers in the Tokyo area.

“The biggest problem for foreign teachers is arbitrary dismissal . . . complete disregard for and flagrant violation of the labor laws.”

The office of the National Union of General Workers is well hidden down a narrow Shinbashi backstreet.

At the top of a flight of rickety stairs, the pokey office has posters of Che Guevara and John Lennon decorating the walls. A mobile P.A. system is parked in one corner and a white-board displays scribbled details of the union’s main campaigns.

Its relatively small, but the union includes a rapidly growing membership of several hundred foreign workers, mostly language instructors. Twenty or so e-mails a day land in Carlet’s inbox from teachers saying they have been unfairly sacked, or with complaints about working conditions.

“There is no doubt in my mind that foreigners get fired much easier than Japanese,” says Carlet. “I have seen it everywhere . . . there is this perception that the labor laws don’t really apply to foreigners — even though they do.”

The union is usually juggling a number of different cases at any one time; negotiating with mom-and-pop language schools that renege on contracts or hold back overtime pay, to taking on big chains that the union believes are elbowing out their most experienced (and best-paid) staff to cut costs.

In one protest last Tuesday, around 50 union supporters gathered outside Nova’s Shinjuku Honko school to protest the recent dismissal of 5 teachers, three of whom had been working at Nova for more than 10 years. All were members of the Nova union — a branch of the NUGW. The union alleges they were dismissed because of their union activities.

As the largest and best known employer of English teachers in Japan, Nova is an obvious target.

“We see Nova as the flagship English conversation school,” says Carlet. “When Nova makes a major change, it affects the whole industry.”

In 1994, the company attempted to submit all their foreign staff to compulsory drugs tests after the arrest of one foreign teacher for a drugs offense. After the fuss kicked up by the unions at the time, no teacher has ever been tested — although it remains in Nova contracts all the same.

More recently, the infamous “non socialization clause” in Nova contracts banning teachers from socializing with Nova students also seems to have been quietly forgotten.

Since this February when the Osaka Bar Council criticized the policy, the NUGW say they haven’t had a single report of its enforcement.

Because of these high profile victories, the big language chains these days know they can’t break the labor laws with impunity.

“People are coming with more regular cases now, it’s not always the worst problems,” says Denis Tesolat of the Osaka Union, which represents language teachers in the Kansai area.

“The big schools now follow most of the labor standards law and the employment law.”

On the other hand, smaller schools throw up plenty of problems, large and small. According to the unions, many managers presume teachers won’t have access to information about the labor laws — or in many cases the managers don’t know the laws themselves.

Yet despite successes, the unions still faces serious obstacles, not least simply making teachers aware that they are there. “I haven’t really thought of joining a union in Japan,” says Wendy Partnoy an elementary school ALT teacher in Hyogo prefecture.

“Everything is different over here and I am concentrating more on surviving than thinking about things like unions. I have never met an English teacher who is a member of a union.”

Carlet says that one problem is that many teachers tend not to think of joining the NUGW until they already have a problem.

What the union needs to keep them in the black are more regular members; then they can deal with teachers who have run into trouble.

The union also faces some not particularly subtle obstruction from schools. Managers have been known to tell newly arrived teachers that the NUGW is a cult or connected to the yakuza.

An additional headache is high staff turnover, which often means that even if a handful of employees form a branch at one school, they can all have gone within months.

One large chain which employs non-native English speakers on short-term contracts generates numerous complaints, but, “even before we start a dispute, the individual normally leaves the company,” laments Carlet.

So, at the end of the day, what can the unions do for you as a language instructor? Supposing you are fired on a whim or conditions are poor, why create more problems for yourself?

Wouldn’t it be easier to change jobs — or just cut your losses and buy a ticket on the next plane home?

Until August this year, David Jobson was working for an ALT dispatch company in Saitama prefecture. He lost his job three weeks after attempting to set up a union branch at the company and is fighting for reinstatement.

Does he regret protesting?

“The way it currently works is that it’s just a slide to the bottom, right? Whatever English teacher can suck up most to the management and rat out his other employees will ensure his job.”

“Well, my argument is, there is another way to ensure everybody’s job security — and that’s joining the union.”

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