Despite a dip in new arrivals brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, many non-Japanese who live in this country are here teaching English. While the industry was dominated by a few major companies just a decade ago, these days you’ll find a lot of smaller companies running schools for children in particular.

As with any industry, there are definitely challenges that you need to be aware of before accepting a new job. One common issue that seems to come up time and time again? Contracts.

Though not necessarily malicious, such precarious, short-term contracts tend to lack ample benefits and adequate protections. The image of a foreign teacher of English tends to be that of a person who is here to make some money and travel after their graduation, thus corners are cut because some firms think they can get away with it.

However, many foreign teachers of English also set down roots, get married, have kids and build lives here. It is therefore important to look closely at your work contract so you can negotiate terms ahead of any commitments.

Last year, Osaka Prefecture abolished paid sick leave for nonregular teachers, which, during a pandemic, means some instructors need to make the decision on whether they risk spreading or contracting COVID-19 or lose some of their salary and possibly their job.

Steven Thompson, a public school English teacher in Osaka, says the loss of sick leave was the most “disheartening” thing that happened to him in terms of work last year.

“For 21 years we always had paid sick leave, but since our contracts are 83.75% of full time, we’re treated the same as Japanese part-time teachers,” he says. “A large population of teachers were in extreme fear of getting sick.”

A matter of status

One of the first things you need to be aware of when signing a contract with a school or company is whether they expect you to work just shy of the minimum amount defined as full time.

The Japan Times spoke to Osaka-based union organizer Satoe Sakai and lawyer Atsuro Tsujino about legal stipulations for foreign teachers of English and what any new arrivals need to know about Japanese labor laws.

First, sick leave is not a statutory right in Japan, so it is at the employer’s discretion whether or not to offer it. Accordingly, sick leave offerings can vary widely from job to job. This is in contrast to other explicit labor protections, such as minimum wages, a 40-hour workweek, extra pay for overtime and annual leave with pay.

“Japanese labor law applies equally to Japanese and non-Japanese,” Tsujino says. “The main difference in contracts is with permanent employment (seishain) and contract employment (keiyaku shain or haken shain). Permanent contract is when you don’t have a fixed term for your labor, (so) your employer cannot finish the contract without good reason. Whereas in contract employment, when the term expires, the contract finishes.” This is a major difference in terms of job security, although labor standards such as minimum wages and overtime apply equally to both.

“The big difference between full time and not full time is with social insurance,” Tsujino says. Depending on the number of hours worked, part-time workers may not be entitled to the health insurance and pension contributions that all companies in Japan are obligated to pay for their full-time workers.

Sakai says that most ALTs employed by local governments have part-time, fixed-term contracts of about 30 hours per week, leaving them short of both permanent and full-time employment. “The salary is low compared to full-time Japanese teachers, but high compared to part-time non-teaching Japanese staff,” she adds.

As a result, when many schools narrowed the gap in salaries and benefits between teaching part time and non-teaching part-time staff, native English teachers rarely saw raises and in some cases even lost benefits, such as with the case of paid sick leave in Osaka.

Shireen Al-Zahawi, who has taught English at a variety of international schools in Japan, says that she experienced what she thought were intentionally vague contracts that left her vulnerable to getting in trouble.

“A lot of important information was opted out and there would be a lot of unwritten rules,” she says, adding that one of her employers would get upset if she even attempted to take a sick day. “(It was hard) trying not to get sick and use your time off for rest.”

Make things clear

One of the major reasons behind these poor contracts is the increasing number of dispatch ALTs, which are hired by private companies as opposed to being direct hires by local governments.

“In the case of dispatch, working conditions are much worse than in direct employment,” Sakai says. “In order to become an ALT directly employed by the municipality, you must know (the municipality’s) recruitment information, but in many cases this will be difficult to find.”

Al-Zahawi’s experience underscores the fact that foreign teachers of English need to carefully go over contracts and clarify all of the working conditions when reviewing a job offer, especially if it comes through a private company as Sakai points out.

“The company does not always provide all of the working conditions (in the contract), so you have to clarify everything first — working hours, salary, basic conditions and social insurance,” Tsujino says.

Among the other pitfalls to look out for in your contract are circumstances surrounding company accommodation, which can be cramped and overpriced, and reduced salary during the summer vacation period.

Neo Yamashita, at EWA Union, and Charles Weathers, a professor at Osaka City University, point out that with local governments having more fiscal problems, they have been using nonregular employees to hold down costs, replacing full-time positions with cheaper part-time employees.

A survey by Tokyo Shoko Research found that 10% of companies in Japan are headed in the opposite direction after recent minimum wage hikes, replacing nonregular employees with full-timers — which is promising, but don’t expect that to filter down to the English teaching sector too soon.

In the interim, Yamashita and Weathers both recommend that unions demand that part-time employees be converted to full-time status, and that the working hours of part-time employees be guaranteed. Teachers in need of assistance with their contracts may turn to labor lawyers, who sometimes offer free consultation, or to major unions in Japan that work to protect teachers such as the General Union.

“I’d like to see a legit school that gives more security and comfort for teachers working in Japan with legal contracts,” Al-Zahawi says. “We need more creative thinking skills in the classrooms of public schools.”

Most teachers are passionate and dedicated, and no small number have found schools that offer secure, satisfactory contracts. For those who haven’t, a stagnant salary and diminishing benefits will inevitably lead to burnout, even for those who’ve been in the game for a while.

“I come from a long line of teachers and would love to improve things here,” Thompson says. “But I see teachers leave every year. And I sincerely wish it weren’t so, for the students.”

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