Tozen Gaba Workers Union in Dispute with Gaba 全国一般東京ゼネラルユニオンGABA労働組合はGABAに対して労働紛争

The Tozen GABA Workers Union is officially in dispute with the company over it’s unfair disciplinary action (不当懲戒処分) against Local Executive President Tyler Christensen.

We are fighting for the right to work unpaid overtime.

Say what?

Yes, we are fighting for the right to work unpaid overtime without facing discipline from the company.

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Teachers tread water in eikaiwa limbo

Jan 22nd, 2014
Illustration  by  TIM O'BREE
Illustration by TIM O’BREE

Every year, thousands of young native English-speakers fly to Asia in search of an adventure, financed by working as English teachers. They come from Australia, New Zealand, the U.S., Britain, Canada and elsewhere.

But it can be risky leaping into another country on the promise of an “easy” job. In Japan’s competitive English teaching market, foreign language instructors are treading water. “Subcontractor” teachers at corporate giant Gaba fight in the courts to be recognized as employees. Berlitz instructors become embroiled in a four-year industrial dispute, complete with strikes and legal action. Known locally as eikaiwa, “conversation schools” across the country have slashed benefits and reduced wages, forcing teachers to work longer hours, split-shifts and multiple jobs just to make ends meet.

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The British Council: friend or foe?
Educators working overseas complain that the venerable quango’s business interests have turned it into a rival
The Guardian

A few years ago, when the CfBT Education Trust, a non-profit organisation that runs schools and education services, was looking to expand its operations in Malaysia, its chief executive, Neil McIntosh, arranged a meeting with the local high commissioner. When he got there, though, he was disappointed to see that the commissioner had brought along a representative of one of CfBT’s main competitors. “He was a bit put out that I should see the British Council in that light,” says McIntosh.

The British Council, it’s widely thought, is a thoroughly good thing. It is the epitome of soft power, a long-established arm of the Foreign Office that promotes British interests not with bombs and guns, but through culture and education. A big part of its job is to promote UK education: by marketing domestic universities to international students, or providing local intelligence to any education provider that wants to work overseas. Officials often suggest the council’s local office should be first port of call for any company looking to enter a new market.

Consequently, McIntosh admits, criticising it feels a little bit like “crying foul on someone’s much-loved grandmother”. But the British Council isn’t just a charity. It is also an increasingly ambitious player in the global market for English languageteaching, exam provision and other education services. It holds a one-third share in the International English Language Testing System, for example, and takes on contracts to train teachers for overseas governments.

Now questions are being asked about whether such activities conflict with the council’s role in supporting other providers, like CfBT. Says McIntosh: “It makes it more difficult for us to compete with America and Australia, whose diplomatic missions represent their education systems more comprehensively.”

McIntosh is not alone in his views. “Every company I know has concerns about the British Council,” says Patrick Watson, managing director of Montrose Public Affairs, which works with a number of firms. “It uses its monopoly position aggressively: if you don’t play ball, it can simply ignore you or decide to collaborate with someone else.”

One business leader even says: “The British Council doesn’t really enable British education exports: it inhibits them.”

The council itself rejects such criticism robustly. Dr Jo Beall, its director of education, points to all the work it does to promote British education: enabling academic partnerships with India and Brazil; telling the world that UK universities are open for business. “It’s because the British Council has been flying the UK flag for nearly 80 years that there’s such a strong market in the first place,” she says.

The root of the row lies in the council’s unusual funding model. It is a quango, sponsored by the Foreign Office, that exists to promote British education and culture. That, in ministers’ minds, includes supporting private education firms seeking export opportunities.

But as its grant has been cut, the organisation has had to shore up its finances by selling its own education services: English language teaching, teacher training, and providing exams. Overseas governments seeking a bit of British educational expertise often appeal to the British Council for help. In some cases, it steps in to provide that help itself, and rivals complain there are no clear criteria explaining which contracts it will pass to the industry and which it will hang on to. “Human nature being what it is,” says Andrew Fitzmaurice, chief executive of international schools firm Nord Anglia, “I suspect they’re always going to keep the best ones.”

The upshot of all this is that the British Council sometimes promotes others and sometimes promotes itself. Many companies are wary of asking for its support, either because they are reluctant to share information with a competitor, or because they think the council would be unwilling to help. “I never gave the British Council a moment’s consideration as a source of information and support,” says Kevin McNeany, chair of Orbital Education, who has worked in the sector for more than 40 years. “Even if they had information of commercial value, it would first be filtered through its own internal networks to see if it could be monetised for in-house benefit.”

The critics have other complaints, too. The British Council’s not-for-profit status means it is exempt from corporation tax in many countries, so in some cases can undercut competitors. And in some regions it also works closely with the British embassy. “I am never going to get a meeting with the ambassador at short notice,” says one angry executive. “For the British Council, it’s just a short walk along the corridor.”

Actually, British Council spokespeople point out, it co-locates with the Foreign Office in fewer than a quarter of the countries where it works, and it does so only for reasons of security or cost. And they say there are protocols in place to stop the council’s commercial and charitable arms from sharing information. Its tax advantages, they point out, merely reflect the fact that it doesn’t make a profit, but uses all income to support its work promoting Britain abroad. Its chief executive, Martin Davidson, is very proud of all this, describing the set-up as “a model of entrepreneurial public service”.

Another complaint, though, is that the council’s commercial goals could affect its advice. Its Education UK website is intended to be the front first port of call for international students looking to study in the UK. But the most visible listings are those schools and colleges that have paid for the privilege: potential students are less likely to discover the course best for them, more likely to see the one with the biggest marketing budget. “Institutions are welcome to pay for extra promotional services,” Beall admits. But she rejects any suggestion that this means the site is biased towards certain institutions, and points out that the council makes no money from the website.

“The problem is not created by the British Council itself,” says McIntosh. “It’s created by the government, which requires the council to fund itself by competing with the organisations that it’s supposed to represent. That is not a sustainable position.”

Beall, though, rejects this entirely. “I really resent that idea that we should move out of this [commercial] space,” she says. “It’s tantamount to a private university saying that all public universities should vacate the market.”

The government does not seem convinced of the case for reform. In 2010, a group of education bosses led by McIntosh wrote to Francis Maude, cabinet secretary, about the British Council’s operations (as well as other quangos), requesting he take action. Maude promised no remedy. A delegation that met the trade minister Lord Green over the summer report a distinct lack of concern. Whatever the gripes of education businesses, the British Council is here to stay.

Berlitz court ruling unequivocal on basic right to strike

Language school firm will appeal decision

After hearing more than three years of testimony, the judge took only a minute to read the court’s verdict rejecting Berlitz Japan’s ¥110 million lawsuit against striking teachers and their union and reaffirming organized labor’s right to take industrial action.

According to the Feb. 27 Tokyo District Court ruling, “There is no reason to deny the legitimacy of the strike in its entirety and the details of its parts — the objective, the procedures, and the form of the strike. Therefore there can be no compensation claim against the defendant, either the union or the individuals. And therefore it is the judgement of this court that all claims are rejected.”

The battle of Berlitz began on Dec. 13, 2007, when teachers belonging to the Berlitz General Union Tokyo (Begunto) launched a strike against Berlitz Japan. The teachers, who had gone without an across-the-board raise for 16 years, struck for a 4.6 percent pay hike, a one-off one-month bonus and enrolment in Japan’s health insurance and pension system.

The strike grew into the largest sustained industrial action in the history of Japan’s language school industry. Over 11 months, teachers of English, Spanish and French struck 3,455 lessons in walkouts across Kanto.

In November 2008, Begunto filed an unfair labor practices suit at the Tokyo Labor Commission. The union alleges Berlitz Japan bargained in bad faith and illegally interfered with the strike by sending a letter to teachers telling them to stop walking out.

On Dec. 3, 2008, Berlitz Japan, claiming the strike to be illegal, sued for ¥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 Louis Carlet, former NUGW case officer for Begunto and currently executive president of Zenkoku Ippan Tokyo General Union (Tozen).

Berlitz Japan claimed the union’s tactics of giving strike notice at the last minute and making it difficult for the company to bring in replacement teachers were illegal and designed to harm the company.

Begunto filed additional complaints against the company at the Tokyo Labor Commission in 2010 after Berlitz Japan dismissed two of the union executives named in the lawsuit. One teacher lost his job after he requested a leave of absence of more than a year in order to serve as a reservist in Afghanistan, the other after she requested an additional four months unpaid leave to recover from late-stage breast cancer.

Yumiko Akutsu, one of the union’s lawyers, told supporters after the verdict that the win was “a complete victory — on not one point did we lose, not one single point.”

Reading from the court’s ruling, she explained that the court found the objective of the strike to be legitimate because “the strike’s purpose was to realize the union demands they had clearly stated to management in 2007 and 2008.”

Because teachers had different work schedules at different language centers and often didn’t receive their schedules until 7 p.m. the night before working, the court also rejected the company’s claims that the last-minute notice given by teachers before striking lessons was illegal. “Strike notice just before the strike cannot be considered illegitimate”, the court ruled.

After the win, Carlet stressed the significance of the victory as an important defense of the right to take industrial action in Japan. “This is a very important victory for the right to strike,” he told union members. “I think people often forget how important the right to strike is. The right to strike was not granted us by governments or by management. Workers fought in many countries around the world and gave their blood, sweat and tears to win this right to strike.”

Hiraga also emphasized the significance of the win, telling union members, “I think what the verdict represents is that the company sued you for damages as a way to weaken the union and as an illegal union-busting tactic, and it was denied by the courts.” Calling it a triumph not only for Begunto and Nambu, Hiraga told supporters, “This is a victory for the entire labor movement in Japan.”

According to Akutsu, a victory by the company “would have had a huge impact and a huge chilling effect on people’s willingness to strike.”

Gerald McAlinn, a professor at Keio University Law School, said that because Article 28 of the Constitution guarantees the right of workers to organize and bargain collectively, “Any decision by the court to the contrary would have been very strange and contrary to the fundamental rights of all workers in Japan.”

McAlinn emphasized three reasons for the importance of the case. First, “A ruling in favor of the company would have opened up an avenue for employers to circumvent the balance of power established by the labor union law.” He added that allowing employers to sue striking workers “would be a powerful weapon that could easily be used to chill the exercise of constitutional rights by workers all across Japan.”

The court’s ruling is also significant because of the somewhat unusual nature of the strike action. Unlike in a typical strike, where workers walk out en masse and stay out together, Berlitz instructors sometimes taught and sometimes downed chalk. Individual Begunto members struck individual classes in different language centers at different times, handing their strike notices over to management only a few minutes before the scheduled start of the lesson. This minimized the company’s ability to bring in replacement teachers and break the strike. According to McAlinn, “This case seems to legitimize the practice of refusing to work other than via the traditional all-out-together picket line strike.”

Finally, McAlinn believes the verdict matters because it was mostly foreign teachers in the dock. “The nationality of the defendants should not matter of course, but this decision makes this point clear,” he said.

The triumphant union executive members stress the need to move past legal confrontations and get back to negotiations with management. Hector Coke, Begunto president at the time of the strike and one of the teachers named in the lawsuit, told union members and supporters in a meeting after the verdict that it’s time to start negotiating and “build a better relationship with management. We should not be arrogant in the fact we won this case.”

Paul Kennedy, current Begunto president, echoed this point at a press conference after the verdict. “We look from this point forward to be able to negotiate with Berlitz Japan,” he told reporters. “This is a new start for both sides.”

However, Berlitz Japan didn’t wait long before deciding to continue the legal skirmish. Kennedy says he received notice that Berlitz Japan will appeal the verdict on Friday.

Michael Mullen, Berlitz Japan’s senior human resources manager, declined to comment on the case.

Berlitz Japan doesn’t necessarily have to submit new evidence in their appeal to the high court. “In my experience, the high court is not shy about reaching a decision different from that at the district court level if the judges see the facts or law differently,” said McAlinn. “Having said that, I would be surprised if the high court were to reach a different decision in this case.”

Meanwhile, Begunto and Berlitz Japan continue their legal battle at the Tokyo Labor Commission, buoyed by the district court victory.

“With this verdict,” says Carlet, “we will be in a very good position at the labor commission because the strikes were legal and that will make all the difference.”

However, legal experts don’t all share Carlet’s confidence. According to McAlinn, the verdict “shouldn’t have a direct impact on the union claims at the Tokyo Labor Commission” because “the two actions are governed by different laws and legal standards.”

Tadashi Hanami, former chair of the Central Labor Relations Commission and professor emeritus at Sophia University, agrees, explaining that the Tokyo Labor Commission “may take this verdict in consideration if it chooses so, but we can hardly predict whether it will do so or not because it’s not unusual that courts and commissions take completely different opinions.”

Union members also now face a large legal bill. “The general principle under Japanese law is for each side to pay their own court costs,” says McAlinn. Union members are now discussing ways to recover court costs from Berlitz Japan, says Kennedy.

Berlitz loses suit over union teacher strikes

The Tokyo District Court on Monday rejected a lawsuit filed by Berlitz Japan Inc. that sought damages from union executives and its teachers for waging strikes and causing substantial damage to the company.

Presiding Judge Hiroshi Watanabe sided with the labor union and its workers, saying acts by the defendants “do not comprise any illegality.”

“There is no reason to deny the legitimacy of the strikes,” including their purpose or process, the court ruled.

Berlitz, the plaintiff, filed the lawsuit in December 2008. The language school chain claimed executives of the National Union of General Workers Tokyo Nambu, and affiliate Berlitz General Union Tokyo (Begunto) — particularly five activist, non-Japanese Berlitz teachers — conducted illegal strikes for 11 months beginning in December 2007.

According to the plaintiffs, union activities including coordinated strikes and delay of written notice of strikes “put the company’s existence itself in peril.” The plaintiffs claimed that acts by the defendants affected 3,455 classes during the span and caused some of its students to leave the school.

The company had sought compensation of ¥110 million each from Nambu, Begunto, an executive from each group and the five Berlitz teachers. The strikes involved more than 100 unionized foreign teachers of the chain.

The defendants meanwhile had said their strikes were within their rights, after Berlitz in 2007 rejected their requests, including a demand for a 4.6 percent raise and a bonus payment equal to a month’s pay.

According to the defendants, teachers at Berlitz hadn’t won an across-the-board raise for over 16 years. They claimed the lawsuit violated their right to union activities and collective action.

While similar civil cases have often been settled out of court, the case saw an extended period of negotiations that ultimately ended without an agreement.

Defense lawyer Yukiko Akutsu, who criticized the plaintiffs for causing the case to drag on for over three years, called Monday’s ruling “a complete victory” for her clients.

While touching on the possibility that the plaintiffs may file an appeal, Akutsu told a meeting following the ruling that the court “recognized that each of the strikes was legitimate.”

Nonregulars at record 35.2% of workforce

The ratio of nonregular workers in the labor force in 2011 hit a record average high of 35.2 percent, excluding [Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima] the three prefectures severely affected by the March quake and tsunami, up 0.8 point from 2010, according to data compiled by the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry.

The average for the year hit a record for the second straight year, the ministry said Monday.

The rise appears to have stemmed from the growing tendency of firms to hire fewer young people as regular workers and rehire veteran workers on a contract basis after their retirement.

By age bracket, the ratio of nonregular workers came to a record 32.6 percent among people aged between 15 and 34, while that among workers aged 55 and over was 51.5 percent, also an all-time high, the ministry said.

Nonregular workers aged between 15 and 34 numbered 1.7 million, up 20,000, it said.

Four years after ‘Nova shock,’ eikaiwa is down but not out

Ask any ordinary person what significance Oct. 26 holds and you might find them struggling for an answer, but for many involved in Japan’s beleaguered English teaching industry, it was the day the nation’s premier operator fell into administration and took much of the rest of the industry with it.

This year, Nova marked its fourth anniversary of operation following restructuring, and while Louis Carlet, executive president of Zenkoku Ippan Tokyo General Union (Tozen), admits it has been a long time since the collapse, he feels that the English conversation school (eikaiwa) industry as a whole “continues to convulse.”

Carlet is no stranger to the Nova saga, having been a spectator to it from the start of the chain’s public troubles in early 2007 and the eventual bankruptcy to Nova’s restructuring by Nagoya-based holding company G.Communication in the following years.

Although the media at the time asked Carlet for his thoughts on a seemingly daily basis, he admits it was difficult to get a historical perspective on what impact Nova’s collapse would have on the industry.

“One thing I did say during several press conferences was that the business model of profits over people does not work in the long run,” he says.

Once the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry became involved in investigating Nova’s business in 2007, the eikaiwa chain seemingly went from a fully operating business to bankruptcy within months.

During the course of Nova’s downward spiral, the atmosphere at branches took a slightly unusual turn as Nova management, or more specifically then President Nozomu Sahashi, tried to allay instructors’ concerns about delayed payments through bizarrely worded faxes, which instead seemed to have the opposite effect.

Thinking back to those faxes, often referred to as “Jesus memos” for the spiritual metaphors and starry-eyed rhetoric Sahashi utilized, Carlet describes them as “creepy” and says they gave employees the feeling Sahashi “was losing it,” which only further lowered the confidence of everyone involved.

Nova finally collapsed under the weight of its debt on Oct. 26, 2007, though while many knew it was coming, Carlet admits he was surprised to hear that the Nova board had conducted a coup d’etat by holding an emergency meeting without Sahashi in order to fire him and immediately apply for court protection from creditors.

Immediately after, the National General Workers Union (NGWU) [sic] found itself thrust into the difficult position of providing support and advice to Nova’s entire foreign workforce, in addition to dealing with a surge in membership in the hundreds.

The labor group managed to organize the instructors into rallies and visits to the Labor Standards Office, as well as holding seminars to explain the complicated system behind the government’s guarantee that 80 percent of unpaid wages would be repaid in the event of bankruptcy and how to apply for unemployment benefits.

“We did a public relations campaign to make sure everyone in Japan knew how bad it was for unpaid teachers, some of whom had trouble getting food,” explains Carlet, who was then deputy secretary general of NGWU’s Tokyo Nambu branch.

The NGWU attempted to assist instructors in this predicament with a highly publicized “Lesson for Food” program, where private students would compensate an instructor for an impromptu language lesson with a meal instead of the normal tuition fee.

While the union’s intentions behind the initiative were noble, Carlet admits in hindsight that it had the “unintended consequence of lowering the private lesson market rate.”

One senior instructor in western Japan, who chose to remain anonymous for this story, has worked continuously with Nova since years before its restructuring, and witnessed the scaling down of Nova firsthand.

“The old Nova had a hierarchy of supervisors who conducted training and evaluations, called titled instructors, and gave day-to-day feedback on teaching performance,” he explains. “They did not always do the job very well, but as hired so few people, there hardly ever seem to be any lesson observations anymore.”

The instructor describes the current Nova management as “extremely poor,” and while it was not especially good at the old Nova, he feels that the people running the branches now are “much worse.”

“There needs to be a proper system for training and supervising teachers, and while the various companies running Nova want the teachers to get more involved in sales, they have no good ideas about what they want the teachers to do,” he says.

While Nova has managed to pull off the massive feat of restructuring, it is clear that the eikaiwa industry has suffered significant contraction following the collapse, with competing language chain Geos going bankrupt in the middle of 2010.

“The economy is bad and young people’s employment is so unstable that most people have little extra time or money to spend learning a foreign language,” Carlet explains.

Looking to the future, Carlet does not foresee things improving drastically for the eikaiwa industry as a whole, but sees some opportunity for smaller operations.

“To recover, the eikaiwa industry would have to overhaul its business model and take language learning seriously as an educational exercise, treat teachers as long-time careerists and, ultimately, charge more,” he says.

Fear for jobs ignites “English crisis” in Japan

It’s eight in the morning in a Tokyo office building, and a dozen middle-aged Japanese businessmen sit inside small booths, sweating as they try to talk English to the instructors in front of them.

“I hope my wife will understand my hobby,” one 40-something man says, opening his mouth widely around the English words.

He is one of legions of Japanese businessmen, or “salarymen,” struggling with a language they thought they had left behind them in school as fears mount that the growing push by Japanese companies into overseas business will mean a dark future for them without usable English.

This is especially true these days, with the strong yen and a lagging domestic market prompting more firms to look overseas for business opportunities essential for their bottom lines.

“I had a business trip to Amsterdam last year and that really was tough. My boss spoke no English, and I had to speak English for the first time in 10 years,” said Masahide Tachibana, a 39-year-old software developer.

Tachibana now gets up at 5:00 a.m. to take morning lessons at a central Tokyo branch of Gaba, an English language school.

“I’ve always wanted to brush up my English and that business trip ignited my aspirations,” said Tachibana, as around him other businessmen and women pack up and hurry to work after their 45-minute, one-on-one lessons.

Japan, despite being the world’s third-largest economy and a major export powerhouse, is known for its poor English-speaking ability even though six years of study are required in middle and high school.

The country’s average score on the TOEFL iBT, a computer-based test of English as a foreign language, in 2010 ranked 27th among 30 Asian countries, below Mongolia and Turkmenistan.

Only 9 percent of 1,156 white-collar workers surveyed by Recruit Agent, a recruiting firm, claim to be able to communicate in English. Many respondents evaluated their speaking and listening aptitude as “Barely.”

But things are starting to change, prompted by a growing sense of urgency about employment.


The first push came from online retailer Rakuten’s 2010 decision to make English their official language. Fast Retailing, the operator of the Uniqlo apparel chain, also wants to make English its official language by 2012 and test its employees for proficiency.

“Rakuten’s decision triggered a shock-wave that’s extended to many other companies, especially manufacturers, because they too are under pressure to expand outside a shrinking home market,” said Yuriko Tsurumaki, a Recruit Agent spokeswoman.

“Not all Japanese firms have businesses overseas for the time being but people are seeing possibilities and sharing a sense of crisis (about English).”

Now nearly half of Japanese companies planning new hiring require applicants to be “business English users” – a big rise from 16 percent in July 2009, she said.

Highlighting fears among businessmen with poor English, a number of companies, including chip maker Elpida Memory and Murata Manufacturing Co, a maker of parts used in mobile phones and computers, are shifting some production outside Japan to cope with a currency near record highs.

The surging yen is also encouraging Japanese firms to acquire businesses overseas to build more revenue pillars, with trading house Itochu buying Britain’s tire seller Kwik Fit for $1 billion.

As a result, Japan’s foreign language education market is growing, with learners more than willing to fork out plenty of money on lessons, DVDs or e-learning.

It rose 1.6 percent to $9.8 billion in 2010 from a year earlier, said Yano Institute of Research, and is set to grow another 1.8 percent this year, making it a rare bright spot amid lagging Japanese private consumption.

“This is just the start of Japan’s real globalization. Everyone is feeling that they’ll see a no-English-no-job situation,” Gaba‘s president Kenji Kamiyama told Reuters in a recent interview.

Thanks to avid English learners, Gaba says it has almost achieved its student number target for the year and predicts the upbeat trend will likely last for a while. Gaba says that on average, a student spends about 50,000 yen ($654) a month — against an average 36,500 yen allowance for Japanese businesspeople.

“The English crisis shows the rapidly changing environment Japanese firms face. Most Japanese businessmen, for a long time, avoided an English-speaking environment,” Gaba’s Kamiyama said.

“But they now know that they can’t stay that way… It’s been a real kick in the pants for them.”