In late March, 65 English assistant language teachers, or ALTs, effectively lost their jobs after dispatch agency Interac lost a contract with the Sapporo Board of Education.
It was shocking news for the ALTs, many of whom have families to support.
“Interac offered people classes outside of Sapporo in other parts of Japan. Some people took those, but the majority of people didn’t because they had to stay in Sapporo for family reasons, or they simply wanted to stay in Sapporo,” said one of the ALTs who asked not to be named.
He, too, decided to stay put because he lived in the city with his wife and an 8-year-old child since moving to Japan in 2011.
The dismissals underline the unstable job situation of subcontracted ALTs despite the push by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration to improve English language education at schools.
“To secure the necessary number of ALTs and ensure their quality, the board of education should hire them directly,” Osaka-based General Union, whose members include subcontracted ALTs, said in a statement. “The Sapporo Board of Education’s move to delegate everything to contractors constitutes negligence.”
ALTs have been working at schools nationwide since 1987. At present, there are three tracks to be hired as ALTs. The first is through JET, the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program, a government exchange program that hires overseas university graduates to work as ALTs in Japan. The second track is through local governments directly hiring ALTs.
These two tracks offer a stable working status with reasonable income and benefits.
The third track is to register with personnel agencies such as Interac, Nova and Heart, and be dispatched to work as ALTs. Their job status is often unstable with a contract of up to a year.
Research conducted in 2010 by the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology revealed that out of 1,680 municipalities that hired ALTs, 724 did so under subcontract.
“Municipalities should avoid hiring ALTs under subcontract. If they want to hire ALTs other than those under the JET program, the board of education should hire them directly,” said lawyer Shoichi Ibuski.
Ibuski co-founded a project group with colleagues at the Kanto Federation of Bar Associations in November 2011 to make other lawyers aware of the unstable job situation of subcontracted ALTs.
In a survey the group released in September on 185 ALTs and 46 boards of education nationwide, more than half of subcontracted ALTs weren’t covered by the nation’s social insurance scheme, including health and pension benefits. Some received a monthly wage under ¥100,000.
Meanwhile, all ALTs hired via the JET program and about 75 percent of those hired directly by municipalities were covered.
“(Subcontracted ALTs) are probably not covered by social insurance because their contract term is usually very short,” said Ibuski. “In many cases, the contracts of those ALTs aren’t renewed after a year. In addition, some are contracted to work only for a semester, which means there would be no salary during the breaks.”
Ibuski called on the boards of education to improve the working conditions of ALTs to ensure they had a secure working environment even if they are under subcontract. But doing so would require a budget tantamount to hiring them directly, he said.
Hiring subcontracted ALTs would also have negative effects in the classroom, Ibuski added.
The dispatch workers law restricts ALTs from working as a team with Japanese English teachers.
This includes discussing teaching content among Japanese and non-Japanese teachers, an activity that would be considered “disguised dispatch,” which is legally banned. To avoid this, schools and boards of education need to directly hire ALTs or make sure the two sides don’t hold discussions over teaching content.
“This confusion stems from hiring ALTs indirectly in order to cut costs,” said Ibuski.
In Sapporo, the fiasco over the 65 ALTs who suddenly lost their jobs didn’t end there. Dispatchers of ALTs are decided each fiscal year through bidding, and English language school chain Nova won the next contract via a tender.
The majority of the former Interac ALTs had no choice but to apply to Nova for jobs. However, because Nova couldn’t secure 65 ALTs as required, the company lost the contract on May 2, the day the ALTs were scheduled to be dispatched to schools.
At present, the city’s schools, including 201 elementary schools and 73 junior high schools, are now running English classes without ALTs — a major embarrassment for Sapporo.
After the incident, the General Union was flooded with calls from ALTs in Sapporo, with some saying they moved to the city to work but were subsequently out of a job after the Nova contract was voided.
“Teachers who had to leave a company or move to another place to work for the Sapporo Board of Education suffered tremendous damage to their lives,” the General Union said.
Despite calls by the labor union to hire them directly, the city’s board of education held another bidding session from May 11 to 23 and Interac, once again, was chosen as the dispatcher. Interac plans to hire enough ALTs to be dispatched from July. The company said it will prioritize the 65 ALTs who lost their jobs.
“We are making our best efforts and preparing to fulfill the contract, using all of our knowledge for the children and students in Sapporo” to have better quality English classes, Interac spokeswoman Yoriko Hirama said.
The board of education said it still has no plan to directly hire ALTs.
“It’s true that ALTs are effective in improving students’ listening skills” in English, but they are not required, and Japanese instructors are still able to run classes, said a Sapporo Board of Education official. “We will continue to cooperate with private enterprises” to hire ALTs, the official said.