Talks drag on, teachers fired in Berlitz case

After 20 months of legal wrangling, neither side has managed to snag a win in Berlitz Japan‘s ¥110 million lawsuit against five teachers and their union, Begunto.

On the recommendation of the case’s lead judge, the company and union have been in court-mediated reconciliation talks since December. The agreement to enter the talks came after a year of court hearings into the suit.

“The vast, vast majority of cases (in Japan) are decided out of court, and that’s the way the whole thing is designed,” explains lawyer Timothy Langley, president of Langley Enterprise K.K., a consultancy specializing in labor issues. “It works even though it’s frustrating; people eventually define the solution themselves.”

Louis Carlet, one of the union officials being sued, describes progress at the once-a-month, 30-minute negotiating sessions as “glacially slow.”

It will be up to the judge to decide how long to let this process play out, says Tadashi Hanami, professor emeritus at Sophia University and former chair of the Central Labor Relations Commission. “Talks for the purpose of conciliatory settlement will continue as long as the judge finds there is a possibility for settlement by compromise.”

The current focus of negotiations is the amount of notice union members should give the company ahead of industrial action. Initially, Berlitz Japan offered to drop their lawsuit if teachers gave a week’s notice before striking. Begunto proposed five minutes. Since teachers typically only learn the next day’s schedule the night before, the judge instructed the company to come up with a better offer.

Asked how much notice unions legally have to give before striking, Langley replied, “None. Zero. That’s one of the beauties of a strike: You just strike.”

In the latest round of talks held Thursday, Berlitz Japan requested contract teachers give strike notification by 3 p.m. the day before, and per-lesson teachers by 5 p.m. Begunto pointed out to the judge that per-lesson teachers don’t receive their schedule until 6 p.m. the day before. Union executives have taken the offer back to members for consideration.

The battle between Berlitz Japan and Begunto began with a strike launched Dec. 13, 2007, as Berlitz Japan and its parent company, Benesse Corp., were enjoying record profits. Teachers, who had gone without an across-the-board raise for 16 years, struck for a 4.6-percent pay hike and a one-month bonus. The action grew into the largest sustained strike in the history of Japan’s language school industry, with more than 100 English, Spanish and French teachers participating in walkouts across Kanto.

On Dec. 3, 2008, Berlitz Japan claimed the strike was illegal and sued for a total of ¥110 million in damages. Named in the suit were the five teachers volunteering as Begunto executives, as well as two union officials: the president of the National Union of General Workers Tokyo Nambu, Yujiro Hiraga , and Carlet, former NUGW case officer for Begunto and currently executive president of Zenkoku Ippan Tokyo General Union (Tozen).

While believing their strike to be legal, Begunto decided to suspend industrial action until the lawsuit is settled rather than risk the dismissal of union members. However, the company fired two of the teachers it’s suing anyway.

One, who didn’t want to be named, received word of his dismissal just before shipping out to Afghanistan as a U.S. Army reservist at the end of July 2009. Berlitz Japan had allowed the teacher to take unpaid leave for military duty several times before the strike. But after being the only teacher at his Yokohama branch to walk out, he began getting complaints from students.

According to Begunto members, after being ordered to deploy to Afghanistan, Berlitz Japan told the teacher he could take a leave of absence of less than a year, and that he’d have to quit if he needed more than a year. Two days before he left for Afghanistan the company fired him. According to the dismissal letter, his performance was subpar and was hurting the company’s image.

“The union believes strongly that the teacher’s dismissal was because he was the only striker at Yokohama,” says Carlet.

Another of the teachers named in the suit, Catherine Campbell, was fired earlier this month after taking too long to recover from late-stage breast cancer cancer. In June 2009, Campbell took a year of unpaid leave to undergo chemotherapy and radiation treatment. Because Berlitz Japan failed to enroll Campbell in the shakai hoken health insurance scheme, she was unable to receive the two-thirds wage coverage it provides and had to live with her parents in Canada during treatment. The company denied Campbell’s request to extend her leave from June to Sept. 2010 and fired her for failing to return to work.

Berlitz Japan work rules allow for leave-of-absence extensions where the company deems it necessary.

“If cancer is not such a case, what would be?” Campbell asks. “On one hand, I’m lucky to be alive and healthy enough to even want to go back to work, so everything else pales in comparison,” she explained. “But on the other, the company’s decision does seem hard to understand. The leave is unpaid, and I don’t receive any health benefits, so it wouldn’t cost Berlitz anything to keep me on; and for me, it’s that much harder to restart my life without a job.”

Michael Mullen, Berlitz Japan senior human resources manager, declined to comment for this article, writing in an e-mail, “At the current time the company does not want to make any comments due to the ongoing legal dispute.”

The union is fighting both dismissals at the Tokyo Labor Commission. The panel is also hearing an unfair labor practices suit filed by Begunto that charges Berlitz Japan bargained in bad faith and illegally interfered with the strike by sending a letter to teachers telling them the strike was illegal and to stop walking out.

The next round of reconciliation talks and Tokyo Labor Commission hearing are both scheduled for Sept. 6.

Berlitz blitz against union bogs down

In December, after a year of strike action by over 100 teachers, the company filed a lawsuit against seven union members. Named in the suit are five Berlitz teachers who volunteer as Berlitz General Union Tokyo (Begunto) executives and two officials from the National Union of General Workers Tokyo Nambu: President Yujiro Hiraga and Louis Carlet [currently President of Zenkoku Ippan Tokyo General Union], [and formerly] the deputy general secretary [of NUGW Tokyo Nambu] and [former] Begunto case officer. Claiming the Begunto strike is illegal and meant to damage the company, Berlitz sued the defendants for ¥110 million each.

Ever since launching their legal battle, lawyers for Berlitz have appeared reluctant to go over the top. After gaining an extension in January for more time to prepare evidence and legal arguments, Berlitz lawyers still submitted their documents 10 days past the end-of-March deadline set by the judge.

The second hearing in the suit lasted a matter of minutes. One judge complained that after reading the company’s recently filed documents he still couldn’t understand their reasoning for why the strike was illegal. He told Berlitz’s lawyers to provide a concise and understandable summary of their arguments before the next hearing. Looking at the crowd of union supporters in the courtroom, the judge added that the summary was necessary not only to help him understand the company’s position, but also for the benefit of all those coming to hear the case.

Campbell expressed disappointment at the latest delay. “It’s the dragging-on that’s very frustrating. They sued in December and you’d think they would have their evidence prepared. In this case they sued and then prepared their evidence. Not only that, but they took an enormous amount of time and still haven’t finished it all.”

The last collective bargaining session between Berlitz and Begunto took place March 13. The company rejected the entire list of teachers’ demands, which included a 4.6-percent raise in base pay, the retraction of the warning letter sent to striking teachers, the introduction of a bonus system, and the disclosure of documents related to Berlitz’s financial health.

Both sides appear prepared for a lengthy legal battle. After the first January court date for Berlitz’s lawsuit, Ken Yoshida, one of the union’s lawyers, said the company’s legal team was “stalling,” and that it would be a long, drawn-out court fight.

Berlitz strike grows despite naysayers

Historic six-month action is starting to reap dividends

Despite scabs, naysayers and second-guessing pundits in the English-language media, Berlitz teachers are making history. With more than 100 teachers striking at dozens of schools around the Kanto region for over six months, the industrial action at Berlitz is now the largest sustained strike in Japan’s language school history.

Begunto demands a 4.6 percent base pay hike and a one-off bonus of one month’s salary. Berlitz Japan has not raised teachers’ base pay for 16 years. Three years ago, the language school lowered starting pay by over 10 percent per lesson, a cut only partially mitigated by a performance-based raise this year.

These demands are carried over from last year and are the two key demands of Begunto’s 2008 “shunto.”

Shunto is the traditional labor offensive that unions around the country wage each spring. It literally means “spring battle.” In Japan, even labor disputes invoke seasonal change.

Although management’s two proposals have thus far fallen short of Begunto’s demands, members are showing extraordinary energy and commitment to building momentum in the strike until the demands are met. Two language centers that have had particularly effective walkouts are the powerful Akasaka and Ikebukuro “shops.” More than half of all Berlitz schools in Kanto have participated in the strike.

In order to realize the strike demands, the union has organized and coordinated sophisticated surgical strikes, including bait-and-switch and strike feints. This keeps bosses on their toes.

Due to logistic issues, Begunto often can give written notice to the company only several minutes before the start of a particular strike. So management has had to scramble to cover lessons. They sometimes send and pay replacement teachers to cover lessons that end up not being struck, so nonstrikes can be as costly to the company as strikes. On other occasions, management sets up a team of replacement teachers at a nearby cafe, ready to rush over at a moment’s notice in case a strike occurs. The union calls these scabs-in-waiting “caffeine cowboys.” The company also assigns teachers to special “scab-watch” periods, meaning they get paid to wait in case a strike might happen.

Berlitz apparently prefers to spend a great deal of money and energy breaking the strike rather than resolving it by meeting the union’s reasonable demands. Their reasonableness becomes evident in light of Japan’s rising consumer price index (up 2.1 percent year-on-year in August), the slashing of starting pay in 2005 and the 16-year pay hike drought.

In addition to striking nearly every day, Begunto has held demonstrations at various schools around the Kanto Plain nearly every week and has toured Tokyo several times in a sound truck, announcing over a loud speaker, to make sure that the public knows why Berlitz teachers are fighting.

Begunto recently posted on the bulletin board of many Berlitz schools a document entitled “Definition of a Scab,” which caused some controversy. The definition actually belongs to author Jack London and includes such colorful hyperbole as:

“After God had finished the rattlesnake, the toad, the vampire, He had some awful substance left with which He made a scab.

“A scab is a two-legged animal with a cork-screw soul, a water-logged brain, a combination backbone of jelly and glue. Where others have hearts, he carries a tumor of rotten principles.

“When a scab comes down the street, men turn their backs and angels weep in heaven, and the Devil shuts the gates of Hell to keep him out.”

That neither London nor Begunto meant the above definition in a literal way hardly needs mention. That union members are frustrated every time a fellow teacher chooses to help break the strike is why the document went up.

Union members never insist that every single Berlitz employee strike alongside his or her coworkers. They have only asked that teachers refrain from covering struck lessons when it is optional, as it often is. Scabs undermine the hard work, sacrifice and dedication of striking teachers and prolong resolution of the dispute.

One thing I learned from this strike is that there is no way to stay out of it. Each employee is forced by the circumstances of the strike to make a personal decision, which is either: 1) to join the strike; 2) to stay on the sidelines but refuse to cover lessons when it is optional; 3) to help break the strike by choosing to cover struck lessons.

Demonstrating its moderation in comparison with many labor unions, Begunto members have decided to consider only members of the third group as full-fledged “scabs.” In my opinion, it is a difference between courage and cowardice, principle versus pusillanimity.

It is easy to criticize the strike or the union, especially from the sidelines. What is hard is to get up and do something, to make a difference, fight for justice, take action right at the front lines. Begunto members do more than talk ? they act. The small number of teachers and staff who oppose the strike and/or the union will themselves benefit when the union wins higher pay for all.

In fact, thanks to the solidarity, dedication and hard work of union members – and a strike entails quite a bit of hard work – management has already made two pay hike offers, the latest on Sept. 26. At the time of writing, the union was widely expected to reject the second offer as far short of demands. Yet even this offer would never have happened without the efforts of the Begunto strikers.

Most surprisingly, the strike has been very successful as a union-building tool, drawing in many new members impressed that the union is taking positive action.

The right to strike is guaranteed by the Japanese Constitution, the Trade Union Law and international law. An individual has precious little negotiation strength vis-a-vis a big company (or even a small one). A union acting out of solidarity multiplies the negotiating position of its members exponentially. It also turns the workplace from an effective dictatorship into something approaching a democracy.

Teachers at Simul International – like Berlitz Japan a subsidiary of Benesse Corp. – are also striking, “simultaneously,” as it were. In their case, they are fighting for enrollment in Japan’s “shakai hoken” pension and health scheme. The union argues that Simul management is violating both the Health Insurance Law and Pension Insurance Law by failing to enroll its full-time employees.

So Benesse Group has its hands full with big strikes at two of its member companies at the same time.

It’s ironic that some employees, such as the teacher in the recent article in Tokyo’s Metropolis magazine (“Banding Together”), complain that the strike has not yet led to total victory when they themselves are part of the problem. I would say to them that we have not won yet because you have not joined the strike. Strength in numbers – again it hardly needs mentioning.

When more teachers join the strike rather than grumble that it “hasn’t worked yet,” the union will win.

Louis Carlet is Berlitz General Union’s Tokyo Representative, National Union of General Workers Tokyo Nambu.

Berlitz Striking Teachers Make History

The Berlitz General Union Tokyo (Begunto, a local of Nambu) maintained and expanded its 2007 shunto strike during this year’s shunto, focusing on two demands: a 4.6% across-the-boards base pay hike and a one month bonus.

Nearly half of all 46 Berlitz schools in the Kanto plain have been hit by walkouts since the dispute began last December. Over 55 teachers have joined in the time-fixed, volunteer strikes, making it by many accounts the largest enduring work stoppage in the history of Japan’s language industry.

“What we have discovered to our surprise and delight and to management’s chagrin is that many employees are joining the union just to participate in the strike,” said Begunto case officer Louis Carlet. “The strike is the best unionizing tool we have ever had.”

Another crucial point is that while most language school labor disputes aim to maintain or protect working conditions or employment, this strike is “aggressive rather than defensive in that we are fighting for a raise,” notes Begunto Vice President Catherine Campbell.

The union has also held several rowdy, boisterous pickets at several schools around the region, even at non-striking schools, urging coworkers to do the right thing. Check out a video of one such action:

Jack London’s scathing “definition of a scab” also hangs on the union board at most Kanto schools. Finally, some Kanagawa strikers created a rap song specifically about our 2008 shunto fight:

As parent firm posts record profits, Berlitz teachers strike back

“Benesse boasts openly on its Web site about the success of its ‘Language Company’ sector, mentioning Berlitz Japan in particular,” notes longtime Berlitz teacher and Begunto (Berlitz General Union Tokyo) Vice President Catherine Campbell.

The language teachers of Begunto didn’t need a math class to put two and two together, and in April 2007 they began “shunto” (spring) negotiations for a “base-up” raise and bonus.

As the time of writing, at least 55 teachers have conducted “spot strikes” at at least 16 Berlitz schools, most of these in greater Tokyo. Begunto says it is encouraged by the response: Some French and Spanish teachers have walked out, and several more teachers have joined the union. That adds up to teachers walking out of 275 lessons in the greater Tokyo area, at large schools in Ikebukuro and Akasaka as well as suburban locations such as Seijo Gakuen, Atsugi and Kashiwa.

Louis Carlet, Deputy Secretary General of the National Union of General Workers [Tokyo Nambu], Begunto’s parent union, writes that Berlitz has been forced to “spend massive amounts of money and resources sending ‘shadows’ to cover the classes of potential strikers with strikebreakers.”

Nova fall just simple math: it bled red


A 330-sq.-meter office with a double bed, sauna and tea room was where Nozomu Sahashi, ousted president of Nova Corp., worked as the language school chain steadily teetered near bankruptcy over the past few years.

Unveiled to the media last week, the spacious presidential suite on the 20th floor of Nova’s head office in Osaka cost the company ¥2.7 million a month to rent and about ¥70 million to redecorate.

The posh office is yet another example of the reckless way Sahashi ran his firm, which filed for court protection under the Corporate Rehabilitation Law on Oct. 26.

Court-appointed administrators are hoping to come up with a new sponsor by the end of this week, which will allow about 7,000 unpaid teachers and 30,000 paid-up students to return to their schools.

Some experts see Nova’s sloppy management as well as huge investment in TV ads as key reasons for the firm’s failure, for which warning signs were seen starting around 2000.

Tsutomu Kuji, author of “Nova Shoho no Maryoku” (“The Magical Power of the Nova Business”), has tracked Nova’s rapid expansion in the 1990s, when it took advantage of the burst in the bubble economy and consequent land price plunge to acquire and rent classrooms at low cost. Then came another economic slump, but the chain continued to pursue expansion and splurge on ads, as Sahashi pursued his extravagant lifestyle.

Nova was investing huge amounts of its resources on TV commercials.

The firm’s advertisement fee rose from ¥4.6 billion in business 1996 to ¥8.9 billion in business 2002, according to Kuji.

In the business year to March, Nova spent ¥7 billion on ads, or about 12 percent of its total sales of ¥57 billion.

Kuji wrote how Nova attracted new students with eye-catching commercials, talked them into paying tens of thousands of yen for lesson tickets for up to three years in advance and then short-changed refunds to students who grew dissatisfied with what they had paid for.

This prompted students to sue Nova for reimbursement.

In April, the Supreme Court ruled Nova’s contract cancellation policy as illegal and ordered it to repay about ¥310,000 to a man who canceled his English lesson contract in 2004 but was offered a much smaller refund than promised.

Nova, however, was not the only company whose business suffered due to sloppy management.

There was a time in the early 1990s when many language schools went bankrupt, prompting an industry group to draw up regulations.

In 1994, the Japan Association for the Promotion of Foreign Language, which has 66 language schools or chains as members, came out with a regulation stipulating that only a year’s worth of lessons could be prepaid for.

“In many of those bankruptcy cases, companies used prepayment money to invest in real estate and golf course memberships, causing them to (run out of cash and) go bankrupt,” said Mihoko Fujimoto, the association’s spokeswoman.

Member companies are obliged to comply with the regulation. But Nova, Japan’s biggest language school chain, did not join.

Now rival language schools fear the Nova collapse may trigger a bankruptcy domino effect or a considerable drop in sales as distrust of the industry mounts.

There is speculation that Nova’s downfall, which was set in motion by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry’s partial business suspension order, contributed to the bankruptcy of the ABC Language School chain.

Osaka-based ABC Language, a small English-school chain, filed for court protection from creditors in July.

Gaba Corp., listed on the Mothers market for startups, said its net profit for the business year to December is expected to plunge 53 percent to ¥387 million.

Gaba said it has not been able to attract as many new students as expected this year because of the Nova meltdown.

But according to Yano Research Institute Ltd, the language school business has been declining since 2003 as the market became saturated.

The market peaked in 2003 with ¥375 billion in combined sales but it shrunk to ¥346 billion in business 2006, according to Yano Research.

The market is expected to drop 4.7 percent to ¥330 billion by the end of March, it said.

In 2003, the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare began to slash grants for vocational education, including language courses, causing the market to shrink, said Mika Fukuoka, a researcher at Yano Research.

Grants for such courses started in 1998, allowing those who had paid job insurance premiums for five years or more to apply for the grant to cover 80 percent of lesson fees ? up to ¥300,000.

In 2003, however, the ministry limited the grant to 40 percent, or up to ¥200,000, after it determined some grant recipients had not been entitled to them.

The grant cut led to a decline in students and the industry began to shrink.

“Frankly speaking, I don’t think there is any language school whose business is on solid footing,” Fukuoka said.

Language school chains Gaba and Berlitz Japan Inc., which target high-end customers, are the few still relatively successful, Fukuoka said.

“During the bubble economy, many housewives who had time and money took English lessons as a hobby,” she said. “But now, only those who really need to study English will take lessons.”

Benesse Corp. bigwig bashes underling in meeting

An executive from correspondence education giant [and parent company of Berlitz and Simul] Benesse Corp. faces punishment after he punched a middle manager during a meeting last month, the company said.

The executive, a 53-year-old man whose name has not been released, has apologized to the lower-ranking manager who he hit.

But Benesse Corp. officials said that the executive will be punished strictly, including a possible demotion, within the end of the month because his behavior was not appropriate for a company that deals so much in education.

The executive at the center of the incident was in charge of overseeing Benesse’s businesses related to high school and university education.

Is it all over for Nova?

As ‘eikaiwa’ giant plans school closures amid credit crunch, some fear the worst

The dark clouds that have been hanging heavily over us will be cast aside,” reads the English translation of Nova Corp. CEO Nozomu Sahashi’s memo faxed to staff Friday. “I said previously ‘the darkest time is before the dawn,’ and finally the first light of dawn can be seen.”

Nova is on the rocks, and the rosy forecast from the man at the helm of the Osaka-based “eikaiwa” behemoth may not be enough to reassure members of the 7,000-strong Nova crew ? including some 5,000 foreigners ? that the company isn’t sinking as Japan’s biggest conversation school chain plans to abandon at least 200 of its 900 branches, according to reports.

For the second month in a row, wages were paid late in September. Some teachers ? those in the Osaka and Tokyo areas ? were paid on time on the 14th; others received their wages on the 18th. Titled instructors are anxiously waiting to see if they get paid as promised on Tuesday 25th ? 11 days late. Teachers in Nova-managed accommodation have received eviction warnings over unpaid rent despite the fact the company has been deducting money for this purpose from employees’ salaries.

Nova’s labor-relations and legal woes over the past years have been well documented, but the biggest blow for the firm was the punishment meted out by the Japanese government to the firm for deceiving students about lesson availability: The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) slapped business restrictions on the corporation in June, banning the signup of new students on upfront ? and lucrative ? long-term contracts for a six-month period. The bad publicity generated by the decision has led to increasing numbers of students canceling contracts and demanding refunds from the cash-strapped firm.

“It’s kind of like a financial run on a bank,” said Louis Carlet, deputy secretary general of the National Union of General Workers Tokyo Nambu, which counts hundreds of Nova employees among its members. “That’s why this could be the biggest consumer wipeout in Japanese history, because the customers are depositing all this money as if in a bank, assuming the money will be there, and now . . . Nova students are getting worried that they’re gonna get wiped out, so they’re rushing to cancel the contracts and the more they rush the more Nova can’t pay their bills.”

However, Nova boss Sahashi is upbeat about the future. “I would like to inform you that the prospects look clearer for the refunds of cancellations that have accumulated until now and that a schedule has been established for refunding this money from the end of this month,” he wrote to staff Friday. “With this there will be no concern regarding salaries from next month onwards. I cannot announce further details at the moment but would like you to feel reassured and concentrate on business as usual.”

So what ? if anything ? does Nova have up its sleeve? Nova declined to comment over the phone for this story and e-mails to the corporation’s Tokyo and Osaka offices went unanswered.

The memo failed to impress Ken Worsley, Tokyo-based business consultant and editor of Japan Economy News.

“It is vague and contains no proof or evidence that something legitimate is on the way,” he wrote in an e-mail. “We should remember that in December 2005, a few weeks before eikaiwa operator NCB went bankrupt in January 2006, its management issued a similar notice, telling employees that they were about to receive a ‘capital injection’ from a large investor. It never happened, and on the day before January’s payday, NCB locked its doors forever and failed to pay staff or instructors. I see the same pattern evolving with Nova.”

The closure of some 200 schools, reportedly in the Tokyo area and Osaka, Hyogo and Aichi prefectures, should bring in a bundle of cash from savings on rent and the possible sale/rental of Nova-owned property. Is this the first stage in a process of consolidation that could save Nova from bankruptcy?

“I don’t think that Nova’s reported downsizing is a plan in the sense of being a well-thought-out business strategy so much as it is damage control,” Worsley said. “It has been suggested that they are being evicted from some locations, which would certainly indicate that cash flow problems run truly deep. On the other hand, if Nova has embarked upon a strategic downsizing without making an announcement to its employees and investors, one is forced to wonder to what extent the top management may be trusted.”

With Nova’s share price hovering around the ¥40 mark, down from around ¥100 in June (after hitting a high of ¥1,750 in 1999) and last quarter’s dismal financial report ? Nova posted a ¥4.5 billion operating loss over the April-June period (before the METI order), nearly four times the loss over the whole of the last financial year ? you might expect shareholders to be clamoring for the heads of top management. However, Nova’s top shareholders at least ? Nova Kikaku (the corporation’s holding company) and Sahashi himself ? appear to have faith in the current management. And despite the firm now going for a knock-down price, the fact that the same people who got Nova into this mess are still at the controls may put off potential buyers or partners.

“It would be a brave company that would take over a company in Nova’s situation without a change in management,” said Bob Tench, vice president of the Nova union. “The company has a large infrastructure, which in itself is a valuable asset; it has a lot of experience amongst its employees; and with the share price being so low it would be a good buy for a company ? provided they could insert a new top management to run things properly from now on.”

Travel agency H.I.S. was reported to have been talking with Nova about a tieup in July, and some reports have suggested the stumbling block was Nova management’s insistence on staying put. Sahashi, in an interview following the METI order, also ruled out joining forces with other eikaiwa firms. “I don’t want to tie up with a fellow trader,” he said.

With Nova running out of both money and options, talk is increasingly turning to the possibility of bankruptcy.

“I think that Nova’s chances of pulling through and surviving as a company are slim at best,” Worsley said days after the school closures were reported. “I have predicted before that the company would go under around the beginning of November, and I see no reason to change that statement at this point. Late payment is a huge red flag that a company simply does not have a strong enough cash flow to deal with its operating costs. Given that we have seen two late salary payments in a row, I take this as a sign that Nova is nearing insolvency.”

If Nova files for bankruptcy, one concern ? among many ? for employees would be getting hold of unpaid wages. If teachers have time left on their visas and procedures go smoothly, this wouldn’t be a major problem, according to Carlet.

The prospects for students hoping to get money back that they paid Nova upfront for lessons, however, are bleaker.

“The students are very unlikely . . . to get much of their money back, and in the past ? like with Lado ? other schools have been willing to take the students, sometimes for free or half-price,” Carlet said, referring to an eikaiwa chain that went bankrupt in May. “However Nova, being the Goliath it’s always been in the industry, is not in either of the two industry organizations.”

A nightmare even worse than bankruptcy for Nova staff and students would be if the corporation soldiered on after all hope was lost, said Carlet.

“If they don’t officially go bankrupt that means the teachers won’t be dismissed, they just won’t be paid, and if they resign they’d have to wait three months (for unemployment insurance), and if they don’t resign we have to prove that it’s effectively a bankruptcy, which takes time, so either way they’re in serious trouble if Nova doesn’t officially go bankrupt.”

It’s a scenario that is well within the realms of possibility considering how much is at stake for those at the top of the firm, said Worsley.

“The only incentives are fear and greed. Let’s not forget: Should Nova go down, its top management will be in serious personal financial difficulties and will be unhireable. For top management, it makes sense to keep the company running as long as possible in hopes that someone will buy it out. This happened with NCB and Lado, yet in the end no one bought them out.”

With so much uncertainty surrounding the firm’s future, many teachers are not sticking around to see if Nova can weather the storm. Berlitz alone received some 200 applications over a couple of days last week from Nova teachers seeking jobs, said a company source.

Roy Beaubien, who jumped ship after the late payment of wages this month, advises other Nova employees to do the same.

“I’ve seen a Japanese English conversation school try to avoid going bankrupt first hand before. It was hell. Only many years later did any teachers ? and only a few of them that stuck it out for years through many court hearings and after paying years of union fees ? finally get some of their money from the company through the court system.

“As for me? I was until very recently a Nova employee. I applied for my paid holidays immediately after our pay was 12 hours later than usual. I then handed in my resignation soon after that. I learned my lesson years ago and I vowed never to go through that again. This time I wanted to get out when I was still likely to get what I was owed.”

May 25th Mini-Koudou Demos

Rain or shine, Nambu members turn out when called, and more than 20 people participated throughout the day in the Mini-Koudou demos last Friday, May 25.

Action began with a multi-union demo in Kasumigaseki. Hundreds of unionists surrounded the Ministry buildings in support of dismissed JR workers who have been fighting for decades. Listening to the speakers, some of whom were on a hunger strike, suddenly the rain didn’t seem worth compaining about.

A highlight of the day was a visit to the offices of Universal Language Institute (ULI) where we declared a new branch. Management were more than a little surprised to find their office suddenly filled with a dozen union members, and demanded that we leave. Nambu President Hiraga refused, and insisted that ULI recognize the union and commit to negotiations with the new branch. After some debate, ULI management realized that it made more sense to recognize the union than to have a dozen activists occupying its offices and chatting about working conditions with other ULI staff, who in fact seemed to enjoy the diversion.

Later in the day, we returned again to the infamous [three lettered college in Shinjuku], where management has been trying to crush the union for two years now. Managers stood by scowling as students took our leaflets to read during their break. As for the non-union teachers who walked by the picket line, one of our members said it best by quoting Edmund Burke: “Evil triumphs when good men do nothing.”

Union-busting problems at a Berlitz franchise in Sapporo were brought home to Berlitz HQ in Aoyama, as leafletters informed passers-by about unfair labour practices going on under the Berlitz name. Demonstrations were also held in front of ELS, the Berlitz-affiliated company in Shinjuku that runs the Sapporo franchise. This demo was well-timed, just as ELS students and teachers were leaving the building, and all were curious to hear about what was happening up north.

By coordinating action, and working together to resolve disputes at other workplaces as well as our own, wemultiply our strength and solidarity. Watch for more Mini-Koudou in the future!

Reinstate the Sapporo Four!

The fight against union busting at the Berlitz-ELS Sapporo Language Centre continues, with two demonstrations held recently in Sapporo and Tokyo.

In Sapporo, union members leafletted in front of the Berlitz-ELS LC on March 12. The union continues to receive strong support, with a new member joining the original Four, and students as well as members of the local Sapporo Rentai union helping to hand out flyers. The public is obviously reading the flyers, as we have received phone calls to the office in Tokyo from students concerned about the situation.

In Tokyo, union members gathered in front of the ELS school in Shinjuku, and distributed about 300 leaflets. Even without a loudspeaker, the colourful placards and energetic chanting of the protestors convinced the passers-by that something was definitely amiss with the company on the 7th floor. More than half the participants were from Berlitz and Simul, who, along with ELS, are Benesse group companies.                                


Union members at the Berlitz-ELS Sapporo LC are fighting unfair dismissals and union-busting at ELS Japan. ELS denies that the dismissals targeted union members, but cannot explain why out of 17 teachers, only the four union members were fired, less than two months after their first collective bargaining to boot. Unsubstantiated claims of “poor performance” don’t stand up against years of experience, good evaluations, and petitions from students to bring these teachers back to work. 

The real reason may lie in changes to contracts introduced unilaterally this April, as teachers said good-bye to benefits such as paid national holidays and prep time for kids’s lessons.

This unfair labour practice is going on literally under the names of Berlitz and Benesse, which adorn the entrance to the school in Sapporo. ELS took over the Sapporo LC in 2006, but retained the Berlitz operation in a “double-branding” agreement with Berlitz Japan.