Editor's note: Temp Nation is a four-part series on the structural changes taking place in Japan, the world's second-largest economy. With the demise of Japan, Inc.'s lifetime employment policies, more than a third of the country's workforce is now underworked and underpaid. This series examines how some temps are starting to fight back. It also investigates the impact on foreign workers, and the political response to this growing social and economic problem.
NAGOYA, Japan — Andrew Sekeres came to Japan in late 2004 with a strong interest in Japanese culture and two years of studying Japanese language and history under his belt.
Since then, says the Chicago native, his working conditions as an English teacher have grown steadily worse.
"In the last five years, things have changed dramatically," said Sekeres, 28, at an interview at a union office in Nagoya. "It makes me wonder sometimes why I'm still living here."
Sekeres is one of Japan's thousands of ALTs, or "assistant language teachers," most from the United States and Canada. The best such jobs come through the well-known JET (Japan Exchange and Teaching) program, which offer the highest salaries (more than 300,000 yen per month, says Sekeres, or about $3,200), in addition to good benefits and support.
But in line with Japan's broader labor trends, local school systems have in recent years turned to temp teachers as a cost-cutting measure. And firms are using a variety of complicated hiring schemes, Sekeres and others say, to dodge insurance obligations and slash salaries.
JET teachers have shrunk from 5,676 in fiscal 2002 to 4,063 in fiscal 2009, according to government figures. Meanwhile, non-JET teachers' ranks have swelled, and they now outnumber JETs in compulsory education, with 3,246 non-JETs to 2,819 JETs in elementary schools in fiscal 2009.
Sekeres' story shows what that means in practice for foreign teachers in Japan, and for the quality of English education for Japanese kids.
First he was at a private language school as a direct hire making a steady 250,000 yen a month (about $2,600). Then he worked for a "dispatch" firm that assigned him to teaching posts at Tokai City public schools.
In 2009 he was switched to a "subcontract" arrangement, working for another firm, Interac, that paid 245,000 yen (more than $2,600) a month seven months out of the year, but less in other months with school vacations (he made just 180,000 yen, or more than $1,900, in December, for example, and nothing for the month of August).
He clocked 35 hour weeks but was only paid for 29.5 hours so Interac could avoid insurance obligations, Sekeres says. (Interac has received bad press about this issue before).
And because of a Japanese law that bans direct supervision of subcontract workers by the host company, he was not allowed to receive instructions or guidance from teachers or staff at the school.
Foreign English teachers are supposed to team teach with a licensed Japanese teacher. But in practice, Sekeres taught English classes alone from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., to most of his school's 800 6- to 13-year-old students, while the Japanese teacher sat in the back of the room watching silently.
"They don't like the system either," said Sekeres, about the Japanese teachers. "They can't tell me the curriculum, they can't tell me how to teach, they can't tell me anything. They have to talk to my company [Interac, the subcontracting firm]."
Worse, says Sekeres, after word got out last year that he'd contacted General Union for help, he was ostracized. "None of the teachers would talk to me," said Sekeres. "They don't want to side with someone who's rocking the boat. For them it could be dangerous."
Michael Normoyle, a 43-year-old volunteer at General Union in Nagoya, and a former English teacher himself, explained why schools are willing to use this bizarre "subcontract" arrangement.
"With dispatch workers, the people who manage the workplace have some responsibilities for employees' health and safety, but with subcontract work, they have none of these obligations," he said. "So they love this arrangement."
Last October, General Union filed a complaint on Sekeres' behalf with the local labor standards bureau, saying that Interac's arrangement with the Tokai City board of education violated labor law. According to Sekeres, the labor bureau ruled in his favor.
Meanwhile, he's moved to a part-time job at a private high school, making about 120,000 yen ($1,287) a month, and is supplementing that with other work.
Interac declined comment on Sekeres' case, saying in an emailed statement, "Interac is proud to make a contribution to society by giving respect to all of our staff and clients and performing fair business."
Other English teachers in Nagoya said some good opportunities are still available, but teaching English in Japan isn't what it used to be even a decade ago. Then, American and other college graduates could spend a year or two in Japan, get to know the culture and language, and save up money. In today's Japan that's increasingly difficult.
"The golden age for being an English teacher in Japan is definitely over," said Nagoya-based teacher Mike Miller, a friend of Sekeres' from Ottawa, Canada.
Most of General Union's 350 paid-up members are foreign English teachers working on "casual" or temp contracts. Despite some small victories, Normoyle, the union volunteer, is pessimistic. He plans to leave Japan soon, after 15 years.
"To be honest, I'm feeling a bit hopeless now because my union's not having much success protecting the jobs of our own members," said Normoyle.
"There are huge problems here, because Japanese corporations and the government are interested in foreign workers merely as an expendable resource, not as human beings."
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