Issues | LEARNING CURVE

University teachers in Japan work under the shadow of a falling ax

by Daniel Brooks

For most teachers, their job is more than an economic exchange of time for money — it is a vocation. Concern for students’ educational development is genuine, as is a deep belief in the value and importance of education, and a regard for the institution’s reputation and welfare.

It is, however, difficult to maintain such a noble attitude when the goodwill seems to be flowing in only one direction. Other than a small minority of tenured professors, most university language teachers are employed on fixed-term temporary contracts and are treated as little more than disposable commodities: Like a raw material to a factory, ship them in, use them up and throw them out.

In today’s job market, with the supply-demand ratio heavily favoring employers, universities do not have to look very hard to find replacements. This perpetual cycle of replacing temporary workers is not only ethically dubious but is also damaging to the institutions themselves — and society as a whole. A review of recruitment policies, as well as Japanese temporary-contract labor laws, is long overdue.

Originally temporary contracts were intended for jobs that are themselves temporary. A construction company building a bridge, for example, may need a great deal of additional labor until the construction is complete, and would be in a difficult position if it had to continue employing the extra workers after the project is finished. But in today’s job market, it is common practice for universities to employ people on temporary contracts when the jobs they are employed to do are not temporary, simply to avoid the extra responsibility and commitment that comes with giving someone a permanent contract.

In the past it was possible to employ someone on renewable temporary contracts for an indefinite period of time. In April 2013, a law was passed stating that when temporary contracts have been renewed several times and the total employment period exceeds five continuous years, workers can demand a change of their contract status from temporary to unlimited-term or permanent. In fact, in the eyes of the law, a temporary worker who makes such a request becomes a permanent employee the moment they apply for the change of status. Quite literally, it’s an offer the employer can’t refuse. The response of most universities to the new rule was to tell teachers on temporary contracts that they could not be renewed for more than five years, meaning they would not become eligible for permanent status.

Unhappy with this law, universities lobbied hard and won an exemption in April 2014 that allows universities to employ teachers and researchers continuously for 10 years rather than 5 before they can become permanent employees. This means no university teacher on a temporary contract will be able to win permanent status under this law until April 2024.

The intention of the law is clear — to try to increase permanent employment — but there is little pressure on universities to offer permanent contracts. How long is temporary? Isn’t five years — and, certainly, 10 years — a rather long period to be considered temporary? Perhaps employees should instead be entitled to permanent status after one year. A year should be long enough for an institution to decide whether they have hired the right person or not, and it would be too impractical for institutions to replace all their temporary staff and train new ones every single year, so many would have to be retained on permanent contracts. Ten years gives universities plenty of breathing space to recruit and train new teachers, and it does nothing to encourage permanent employment.

There is an acutely disingenuous way in which universities present the law to their temporarily employed staff. Most universities have a self-imposed cap on the number of times a one-year temporary contract can be renewed, so those employed on temporary contracts are never employed long enough to become eligible for permanent status. Universities often claim that they are unable to renew their contract after a certain length of time because labor laws prevent them from doing so.

Of course, the law prevents no such thing; it simply entitles those employed on temporary contracts over a certain length of time to permanent status. It really isn’t the law that is the problem; the problem is the shameless way in which it is circumvented. So brazen is their dodging of the law, there are universities that tell teachers they can be reemployed after a short hiatus, so that their continuous employment period is reset to zero.

From an ethical standpoint, it is surely reasonable for an employee who has given years of good performance and loyal service to expect to be considered deserving of permanent status. The brutal reality, though, is that any respect, loyalty and goodwill a teacher may have shown to an institution is seldom reciprocated.

Even if behaving ethically is not a consideration, the crushing effect on departmental morale ought to be. Cultivating a positive working environment to bring out the best in people should be a primary concern of all those in managerial roles. A department working under the shadow of a falling ax, where collegiality is rendered temporary as teachers come and go each year, is hardly an environment likely to motivate and inspire.

Perhaps it is a little naive, but it would be nice to think that an ethical and socially responsible employer might consider the societal consequences of their employment policy. An estimated 35 percent of Japan’s workforce is employed on temporary contracts. The social and economic benefits of having more people with more job security are obvious.

People with more job security are more able to make long-term plans, buy a house or start a family — and with Japan’s shrinking and aging population and low birthrate, more permanent employment seems not just beneficial but essential for future prosperity. A two-tier employment system, on the other hand, is a recipe for a two-tier society.

Why are institutions so reluctant to convert temporary contracts into permanent ones in the first place? If teachers have proven consistently over a number of years to be good at their jobs, and have experience and knowledge of the institution’s programs, surely it would benefit the institution to retain them.

Perhaps one advantage of having employees on temporary contracts is that they are more manipulable. A person on a temporary contract, hoping for an extension, or in need of a reference letter, is unlikely to refuse a request from his boss. A debt-incumbent homeowner with children to provide for working on a temporary contract will probably think twice before raising objections or expressing criticism, however pertinent and justified they may be. The prevalence of temporary contracts creates a culture of fear-inspired obedience — a department rendered easier to control.

From the employer’s point of view, there is perhaps a valid problem with permanent contracts. When an employee has permanent status in Japan, they are very difficult to remove, and unfortunately there are some people for whom a feeling of being unsackable does seem to precipitate a kind of slow metamorphosis from diligent worker into curmudgeonly shirker, safe in the knowledge their job is secure until retirement.

It is understandable that an employer would prefer to employ a fresh, keen though inexperienced new teacher rather than an aging indolent ingrate who will be there until he reaches 65. But this suggests an apparent lack of leadership skills. Good managers should have the ability to deal with poorly performing teachers, and have strategies to foster a healthy workplace culture.

Perhaps a little tweaking of labor laws to make it easier for employers to lay off poorly performing permanently employed staff with some kind of severance payment may not be a bad thing. Paradoxically, it may even improve the overall situation and create more job security, as employers may become more inclined to retain and make permanent those temporary staff that perform well, safe in the knowledge that should they put their feet up and begin taking their job for granted, there is the possibility of removing them.

The current malaise seems to benefit nobody. Temporarily employed workers do not have enough job security, and perhaps those on permanent contracts have too much. Five years is too long to be considered temporary — 10 years certainly is — and “permanent” should not mean “unsackable.” As well as a review of labor laws, a more enlightened approach to recruitment policies and more progressive management would be of benefit to everyone concerned.

Daniel Brooks, originally from Manchester, England, is a university lecturer in Tokyo. Learning Curve covers issues related to education in Japan. Your comments and story ideas: community@japantimes.co.jp