On February 27, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made the abrupt request for all elementary, junior high, and senior high schools across Japan to close down for spring break two weeks early, beginning March 2, in an attempt to combat the spread of coronavirus throughout Japan. Whilst this was merely a request and not a forced closure, almost all prefectures and boards of education (BOEs) have complied.
As a result of the closures, foreign born English teachers across the country have been thrust into the precarious situation of not really knowing how it will affect their wages. For example, on February 28, the General Union posted an update explaining that because any closures at this point are not technically mandatory, teachers must be paid at least 60 percent of their average wage if they are ordered not to attend work. Yet there are some companies that have still attempted to get away with not paying their teachers. For example, on February 29, Peppy Kids Club informed all of their teachers that they could either take paid holidays or accept a two week lay-off without pay — a move the General Union has described as sickening, not to mention illegal. They also claim that another large language school has attempted to do the same, but, at the time of writing, the union had not specified which school. Furthermore, General Union reports that several undisclosed private language schools have laid off their part-timers for the two week period, which according to the Labor Standards Act, is also illegal, as the law does not differentiate between full and part-time workers.
Despite all of this, the good news for many English teachers is that, for the most part, companies appear to be doing the right thing by their employees. Interac for example, released a statement saying that despite closures, teachers will receive full salaries. Based on conversations with several Borderlink and Altia teachers, their situations seem to be the same. Some report that they are expected to go into work and find something to do, while others have said that they have been asked to stay at home. The decision makers in all of this appear not to be the dispatch companies themselves, but the BOE they are contracted to.
In regards to the Japan Exchange and Training Program (JET), after talking to several of their teachers, all of whom asked to remain anonymous, I learned that, at the time of writing, JET had yet to provide any real updates on the situation at all. Instead, almost everything has been left to the discretion of the local BOE and placement school. Most importantly for these teachers, however, is that despite initial uncertainty, it appears they will all receive full salaries, regardless of interrupted work schedules. That makes sense given that, according to General Union’s conversation with a local labor bureau, “the contract fee to the dispatcher must still be paid regardless of if the school is closed.”
Aside from dispatchers, other companies, such as GABA, have also been applauded for committing to pay the full salary of teachers, despite having no, or very little, assigned work.
After speaking to teachers from different eikaiwas (English conversation schools), international schools, universities, private language schools, and international kindergartens, it appears that for many of them, it is simply business as usual — including salaries. Instead of closing down, schools have instead introduced measures to reduce the risk of infection and spread, including daily temperature checks and reporting, wearing a mask at all times, and staying home if you have a temperature over 37.5 degrees Celsius. The issue, however, is that many teachers report that often these new safety measures aren’t being regulated, enforced, or even taken all that seriously, and instead appear to be token efforts meant to appease, not protect. For example, one ECC teacher, who again wishes to remain anonymous, claims that despite the new regulations, staff are still coming in sick and are simply being asked to wear a mask, while students who come in sick are not being told to go home. So while salaries may indeed be assured, the health of the teacher may not be.
The takeaway from all of this is that despite most companies doing the right thing by their employees, it is still a common occurrence for them not to. The same problems and uncertainty unfolding in this specific sector in Japan are reverberating across the entire economy as the country races to combat the virus – even while many people don’t really understand the labor laws or their rights as workers. Under these circumstances, unions play an important role in helping familiarize people with their individual rights.
Hayden Marks currently works as an English teacher in Japan. Marks has a bachelor’s degree in global politics and is pursuing a master’s degree in information management.