Issues | LEARNING CURVE

Red flags and exit strategies: advice for English teachers in Japan

by Patrick St. Michel

It’s an easy scenario to imagine. A fresh-faced individual from the West, determined to move to Japan, browses English-teaching job listings on a site such as GaijinPot or O-Hayo Sensei. They apply to a few, and get a response from a promising private school. The job is basically locked down, and our hypothetical instructor-to-be is geeked — so geeked they don’t really look around online to see what has been written about the place.

They come to Japan and everything seems golden at first. The company sets them up with housing and practically takes care of everything. The country is so new, the teacher doesn’t ever stop to think if the company might be taking advantage of them in some way. Do they really need to work all those unpaid hours, and why doesn’t the company help pay for health insurance? Although some teachers find they have few complaints, for others, things can turn sour fast.

“They treat me like family, which is nice until Dad takes his belt off,” says Dennis Tesolat, chair of the General Union, a Japan-based trade union that works closely with those employed in the private English education industry.

The Internet is full of horror stories from non-Japanese workers employed by English dispatch companies and conversation schools (eikaiwa). A report compiled between May 2014 and May 2015 by the General Union features a litany of broken rules at larger schools and dispatch companies.

With the autumn school term well underway — and with the Japanese government pushing for more English-language learning ahead of the 2020 Olympic Games, meaning a higher demand for native teachers — it’s important for new instructors in Japan to know when they are being exploited, and, if so, how to improve their lot or extricate themselves from the situation as painlessly as possible.

“It’s the eikaiwa industry. There will be problems,” says Tesolat. “Once bad things happen, it’s very hard to deal with them. It’s better to get the information beforehand.”

A potentially bad situation can be spotted as early as the interview process. One example Tesolat says he has heard about is a company urging new employees to come into the country on tourist visas, and promising them the proper credentials later on. This should be a massive red flag.

“You don’t want to get caught without a visa. I mean, you will get in more trouble than the company. The only thing to do is leave. Get back on the airplane, go away!” Tesolat says, urging teachers to only accept positions that guarantee a proper visa from the outset. Kosuke Oie, an immigration lawyer at the Tokyo Public Law Office, Foreign Nationals and International Service Section, says both the employee and employer can be punished with a fine or imprisonment if an employee doesn’t have the appropriate visa, but the former can also be deported.

Some companies try to skirt this by having the teacher initially work as a “volunteer” while the proper visa is being processed. Oie stresses that teachers should be aware that this still leaves them vulnerable. “You can only do what your visa — or more precisely, your status of residence — allows you to do,” he says.

Yet there are other topics that might be ignored in the interview that Tesolat says are worth keeping in mind, such as health insurance and paid holidays.

“Chances are, if they don’t mention these things, it’s because they don’t exist,” he warns.

Still, Tesolat acknowledges that asking about these issues in the first meeting can set off alarm bells on the company side, possibly resulting in an applicant not getting a job. In desperate situations where you need employment, he admits it’s best to not ask too many questions of this nature, at least when dealing with larger companies such as Aeon or Interac. “Big places are better, they’ve dealt with us for longer and abide by labor rules,” Tesolat says.

“Small schools — just ask directly, otherwise it will end in tears,” he adds. “I don’t want to slag off small companies, but those are the places you need to ask the hard questions. They are harder to deal with, because they overreact.” Tesolat says that if you notice everyone working at a smaller, private company is part-time, or that teachers quit frequently, it’s best to give them a wide berth.

Eikaiwa — both big and small outfits — tend to try to get the most out of teachers. Overtime work can be a particularly thorny issue.

“The principle is that the company must pay overtime for additional hours, more than eight hours a day, 40 hours a week,” Oie says. He notes, though, that teachers should pay attention to what’s written in their contracts, as companies can include special frameworks that change the requirements for overtime pay (to hours worked monthly, for example).

Anybody working at a company with five or more full-time employees logging over 30 hours or more a week should be enrolled in shakai hoken, a government health care and pension program wherein half of all monthly payments are covered by the company. Many English teaching businesses, big or small, commonly avoid doing this.

“The big 29.5-hour scam,” Tesolat says. “Basically you are working all day, at school, and what most of the places do is they give you a bunch of split shifts over the course of the day. You are stuck the whole day, but they are keeping you off of insurance.”

When faced with any infraction, Tesolat says employees shouldn’t bring up these issues with the company, as it could result in the teacher not being brought back come the new semester.

“Give the union a call first,” he says. “There are some companies we’ve dealt with for a long time, and it is just a matter of us writing a letter. That’s what happens at most of the bigger companies.”

Yet sometimes getting out of a bad situation is the only option. In such cases, Tesolat recommends looking for new jobs quietly (and trying to save up as much money as you can while you do so). He adds that, if possible, you should try to leave on amicable terms.

“You can quit your job — the law says that. They can’t force you to stay,” he says. “I would give as much notice as you can. I would follow what the contract says unless it is a situation where it doesn’t say, or if violence is involved — in those situations you just have to get out.”

Technically, an employer can’t fire an employee without 30 days’ notice or a month’s pay in lieu, except in extreme circumstances. But Tesolat mentions that, in some cases, when an instructor goes to quit, the company will just cut them right there. In these situations, the teacher should remember that a company must pay the just-terminated employee any owed wages within seven days if the employee requests this.

Some schools might threaten to evict a teacher from the residence they are living in. “It depends on the condition of the lease — who pays the rent, etc. — but generally speaking, forcing an eviction without court procedure is not acceptable if the employee still lives there,” Oie says.

Getting help from those who can speak Japanese and/or know how the law works is also vital, a point Tesolat echoes when dealing with local labor standards offices.

“That’s a really good place to go with someone from the union, because they are afraid when someone with a lot of knowledge comes in.” That said, Tesolat adds, “The labor standards office is probably the least helpful place you can go,” as they don’t tend to put in much effort.

Tesolat says those coming to the country should safeguard against problems early on by joining a union before even arriving in the country.

“You will have information other people don’t, you can learn to deal with problems at work before they become problems,” he says. “If something happens, you are in the front of the line to get help.”

Yet maybe the most important piece of advice for anyone considering coming to Japan to work in the private English teaching industry is to do their homework beforehand and, in the case of small companies, ask the important questions. The best way to avoid problems in this business is sniff them out as early as possible.

Learning Curve covers issues related to education in Japan. Your comments and story ideas: community@japantimes.co.jp

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