The following articles appeared in the Asahi Shimbun on June 6 and 7. The eikaiwa industry has been attracting attention in the press recently, not only with regard to the health insurance and employee pension issue, but also concerning the general decline in working conditions for teachers over the past few decades. Shrinking salaries and increasing workloads are problems throughout the industry, and are two good reasons for language teachers from every company to work together in order to improve working conditions for all.
Asahi Shimbun, June 6 (evening edition)
by Ari Hirayama
Foreign Teachers not enrolled in Employee Health Insurance
Foreign Language Schools Investigated
The Social Insurance Agency has launched a probe of all 750 companies operating foreign language schools on suspicion that the firms have been dodging insurance payments by not enrolling many of their foreign teachers in the Employee Pension and Health Insurance.
According to the Health Insurance Law and Employee Pension Law, anyone working in Japan for over two months must be enrolled in the employees’ pension and health insurance systems, regardless of their nationality. While insurance premiums are shared between the employer and employee, many foreign teachers are not given sufficient information about the system, and end up non-enrolled. As a result, individuals are faced with paying the entire cost of medical treatment on their own. Issues such as this have led to demands for enrollment.
The Social Insurance Agency says that, although it has issued directives in the past to certain companies who had failed to enroll employees, there was no real improvement in the situation, prompting the current investigation.
A 2002 survey conducted by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry indicated that there were 15,800 foreign teachers and 1,010,000 students at language schools, where yearly sales were182.6 billion yen.
It is rare for the SIA to conduct a nationwide investigation of a single industry. The Agency says that in many cases, language schools do not explain that the system is mandatory, and do not enforce enrollment. In some cases, employees are offered a travellers’ insurance policy provided by a subsidiary of the company that runs the language school.
At Berlitz, Japan, a large English language conversation school, out of 1200 foreign teachers, 100 are enrolled at their own request, while the rest remain outside the system.
The SIA is taking the situation very seriously, sending inspectors from Social Insurance bureaus nationwide to investigate the schools, examining working schedules and employment contracts; any eligible employees who have not yet joined the system will be enrolled.
The problem facing foreign teachers is that those who are not enrolled on the system can find themselves bearing the total cost of medical treatment on their own. A 32-year old British teacher working at major language school NOVA for five years, requested to join the employee pension and health insurance system, but was turned down by the school. He was injured on the job last year, and has bills for hospital visits and medical treatment of over 300,000 yen.
Representative of the Nova teachers union, Bob Tench, comments: “More foreign teachers are putting down roots in Japan, and some of them have serious health problems resulting from illness or accidents. All full time teachers should be enrolled.”
Berlitz Japan’s Director of Employee Relations, Masanori Iwai, attributes the non-enrollment of foreign teachers to the fact that many teachers stay in Japan for only a short time. “Many of them are not interested in joining the employee insurance system. However, we will do as the authorities say.”
At general headquarters of the largest language school, NOVA, a public relations spokesperson said that the person responsible could not be reached for comment.
The SIA’s Medical Insurance Division Chief, Noboru Sugiyama, says of the current probe: “With demands for enrollment from both individuals and unions, we cannot leave things as they are.”
Asahi Shimbun, June 7, morning edition
by Ari Hirayama
High Salaries: A Thing of the Past
There are said to be a million people attending foreign language schools in Japan. A 2002 study by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry put the number of foreign teachers employed by the schools at 15,800. More popular with students than their Japanese counterparts, an increasing number of foreign teachers stay in Japan for long periods of time. Non-enrollment in the supposedly obligatory employee pension and health insurance systems however is becoming an increasing problem, when teachers get sick and find themselves struggling to pay medical bills.
The SIA has taken the rare step of launching an investigation of the industry.
“Hello”. On a weekday afternoon at an English language school (eikaiwa), a 47-year-old British teacher greets his class of three, made up of housewives and university students. The students are eager to learn from a foreign teacher, saying “their pronunciation is good”, or “being in class feels like being in a foreign country”.
Working conditions for the teachers, however, can be in reality quite harsh.
Steve Brown, a 32-year old teacher from the UK who came to Japan five years ago, has been teaching 39 lessons a week at NOVA, the largest of the eikaiwas. Long hours of sitting on a metal folding chair led to back pain, which began a year and a half ago. Unable to endure the pain, he sought treatment at a hospital, which cost him 300,000 yen last year alone. He is still paying 7,000 yen per visit to the doctor, and 9,000 yen for rehabilitation therapy. The bills are so high because he is not enrolled in the employees’ health insurance system and therefore pays the full cost himself.
He has trouble walking and cannot go to work at the school. With no income for the past four months, he was unable to pay his rent of 83,000 yen, and was forced to move out of his apartment and stay with a friend.
When hired by NOVA, he was advised to purchase the travellers’ insurance provided by a subsidiary of the same company, or to seek other private health insurance. The existence of a public insurance system was never mentioned.
“If I’d known about it from the start, I’d have joined,” he says.
Another English language teacher living in Tokyo was billed 700,000 yen after an illness of the internal organs sent him to hospital twice last year. The 38-year old Canadian, forced to bear the entire cost alone, appealed to his company to enroll him in the employee’s health insurance system. They refused.
Problems heard in Diet
Many foreign teachers come to Japan as workers on the “Specialist in Humanities/International Services” visa. Those who work for more than two months are obliged to join the Health Insurance and Employees’ Pension system regardless of nationality. However, the number of foreign teachers not enrolled in the system is startlingly high
Throughout the entire eikaiwa industry, people who should be enrolled are not. This violation of the law is what prompted the SIA to launch an investigation of all 750 firms operating foreign language schools.
In March of this year, the Osaka General Union, which counts approximately 400 English language teachers in the Kansai area among its members, held a press conference announcing its intention to lodge a criminal complaint against NOVA, the largest eikaiwa, for failure to enroll roughly 6,000 foreign teachers in the public insurance system.
The problem has even been raised in the Diet by a Democratic Party of Japan representative, who, late last year, set up a forum for discussion of foreign English teachers’ rights.
In response, the industry continues to drag its feet on the question of enrollment, saying that many teachers stay here for only a short time before returning to their home countries, and thus do not want to join the pension or health insurance systems.
NOVA claimed that the person in charge could not be reached for comment.
The eikaiwa industry got its start in the period after the Second World War, when Japan was occupied by the US military. Thirty years ago, a typical lesson consisted of 20-35 people reciting aloud in unison, following the preferred method of the time. According to a labour union spokesperson familiar with the eikaiwa business, teachers in the 1970s received monthly salaries of 300,000 yen for 20 hours of work, which they often supplemented with outside teaching jobs, giving them a total income of as much as 600,000 yen per month, double that of the average salaryman.
Reforms to the Immigration Control Act in the 1990s, however, meant that it was no longer necessary to have a guarantor in order to work at a language school. The visa application process became easier, and the number of foreign teachers soared. With the trend for internationalization in full swing, languages schools sprang up in every corner of the country.
TV commercials and advertising campaigns reflected an increasingly fierce competition for students. “Small classes, low prices”, or “Lessons when you want, with the teacher you want”, became selling points used by more and more schools.
As lesson fees dropped, teaching salaries were driven down as well.
The situation facing foreign teachers changed dramatically. Working hours doubled, while salaries shrank by half.
The industry, on the other hand, grew rapidly. According to the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, the number of foreign teachers employed at foreign language schools went from 11,600 in 1997 to four time that number in the space of five years. Foreign teachers outnumber Japanese teachers by approximately 6,700. The number of students, too, jumped from 720,000 in 1997, to 1,010,000 in 2002. Yearly sales for the industry reached 182.6 billion yen in 2002.
No authorization, however, is required to open a foreign language school, and there are no regulations governing curriculum, or treatment of teachers. Non-enrollment in health insurance is not the only problem facing foreign teachers: labour consultants also frequently hear cases of abrupt dismissal.
A 30-year old British teacher, who makes a living by holding jobs at several different language schools, says frankly: “I’m always thinking about how to keep the student in a good mood, so I don’t end up fired. I feel like a host in a club. That is not going to help them improve their English.”