Two English teachers stand up for themselves and win – a valuable lesson for anyone working in Japan
The closure of 51 Coco Juku eikaiwa (English conversation) in Japan last week, with more to come in June, illustrates just how volatile the English teaching market can be. Companies that previously provided fairly well-paying jobs are now, in many cases, restructuring them into something akin to a McJob – a brief hiatus between a person’s schooling and career.
Given this change and the often temporary status of an eikaiwa instructor, when a problem with working conditions arises, many teachers simply smile and support it until they return to their home country or just jump into another company.
However, that was not the case for Mulele Jarvis, 48, and Cindy Powers, 69. After receiving what they thought were dodgy contracts, the pair took their employers to court and walked away triumphant. It was a grueling 2.5 year struggle, but the lesson for all of us is clear: Know your rights as a worker.
“I’ve lived and worked in Japan since I was 20, so I really had no experience with contracts and signed just about everything I was given,” Jarvis says. “This recent process has really educated me, and I encourage everyone to look carefully at the contents of their own contracts.”
Before getting into the pair fight, it’s good to know the background. In 2013, the government amended the Labor Contracts Act (LCA) to include a provision that would allow a worker on a serial fixed-term contract for more than five years to seek permanency of employment. That five-year period expired last year, but some companies have responded by creating loopholes to not offer permanent positions, such as asking workers in their fourth year to take a break and subsequently to start their five-year period anywhere. again.
Another way some companies have tried to circumvent the five-year period is to categorize their workers as “independent contractors,” which would effectively exclude them from the scope of the LCA amendment.
Read contracts carefully
In 2016, Jarvis received word that the eikaiwa company he worked for would be changing hands. As a result, he and his colleagues received new contracts to sign in August of the same year. However, it wasn’t long before he noticed that something was wrong.
“I had worked at the school for seven years and (the contract) was markedly different,” says Jarvis. “In addition to calling us independent contractors instead of workers, the new contract took away our paid holidays and overtime. The company name was misspelled or spelled differently in several places, and the term was actually shorter than my (existing contract at the time), which was due to expire in January.
Despite the inconsistencies, Jarvis says he wasn’t initially inclined to make a fuss about the situation. However, Powers, who is also Jarvis’ mother and worked part-time for the same eikaiwa company, absolutely refused to sign his contract.
“There is a rumor circulating in the foreign community that we have no rights, that if there is a disagreement, the system will always be on the side of the Japanese against the foreigner,” she said. “This rumor is maintained by the owners and the employers who must discourage any demonstration. It’s not true.”
Powers and Jarvis took their contracts to attorney Taiga Sawafuji, who happened to be one of Jarvis’ students at the school he worked for. Sawafuji had just passed his law exams at the time and agreed that the contracts had raised some red flags.
“An independent contractor is hired for a specific job and that contract is legally bound to the specified job,” says Sawafuji. “It’s like hiring a construction company to wash your windows. The main point of this contract would be in the completed work, not the time variants or the conditions. If you wash the windows quickly, you’re done in two hours. Wash slowly, you’ll be done in six hours. In all cases, the contract pays according to the work performed.
“An English teacher is clearly a worker in legal terms, as they cannot, in normal situations, be hired for a specific job regardless of hours or conditions. Teaching English is not that kind of job.
Although both Jarvis and Powers refused to sign their contracts, Jarvis says he alone was then harassed with repeated meetings and threatened with dismissal if he did not sign.
“It was really my mother’s conviction that drove me to fight,” Jarvis says, “and it was funny to us that male employers assumed it was my initiative, not hers.”
For the long term
Despite some small concessions, Powers and Jarvis had still not signed their contracts by the end of 2016, and both of their names were removed from the teaching program effective January 1, 2017. On January 4, Sawafuji submitted a deposition trial at the Tokyo District Court: Powers was the first plaintiff of the year and Jarvis the second. It was Sawafuji’s first case as a lawyer.
“A provisional deposition is a powerful legal procedure, but it is quite complicated to file,” explains Sawafuji. “A lot of lawyers won’t care because it takes a long time. Yet, if the court decides that there is just cause, the employer is obligated to pay the living expenses of the employees throughout the legal proceedings.
The Japanese legal system actually has strong labor laws that protect workers, the problem is that the worker must know about them and have the means to financially wait for the end of the legal process.
Things were tough for Jarvis, who went four months without pay before the judge awarded her full living expenses of ¥250,000 per month in May 2017. Powers was awarded half as she was simultaneously occupying a other work. Again, Powers and Jarvis knew their rights, thanks to Sawafuji.
Having obtained the right of execution, two court officers accompanied Jarvis and Sawafuji to his eikaiwa company to collect the back wages directly from the safes.
“The executioner was an incredibly calm man who simply and quietly demanded that he hand over his money as we went from school to school,” Powers said, with Jarvis adding that it was a “beautiful moment.”
There is a light
The initial legal victory was only the beginning, however, as two more years of court appearances and trials followed. The judge had recommended an early settlement of one year’s pay in severance pay, but the school refused, so Powers and Jarvis continued to fight.
“We could all see from the start that this was a winnable deal,” says Sawafuji. “But it is very difficult to actually get a settlement, because working conditions at school are not an ordinary situation for teachers. It is hourly and based on student selections, so there were many difficult points to prove legally for our settlement. Basically, Cindy and Mulele wanted to be allowed to go back to teaching, but what would happen next? The school could easily make it difficult to get lessons. It was a tough choice for us too to keep fighting.
Both men were helped by their persistence but, admittedly, Sawafuji’s willingness to suspend his fees until the settlement was resolved was a huge help. With just two weeks left before a judge would force their hand, the school agreed to a settlement last month rather than allow the couple to return to work. Jarvis and Powers received several years of salary.
“It’s still a shock that after 2 and a half years it’s done,” says Jarvis. “They conceded the war. All I can do now is warn others.
Sawafuji hopes others working in Japan can learn from their story.
“If you are faced with an unfair contract, it is very important to consult before signing,” he said, adding that prefectural offices and those in major cities offer free legal consultation. On top of that, places like Houterasu (Japan Legal Support Center) offer consultations on a need-based payment scale and, of course, Sawafuji says you can try joining a union to learn more about your rights as a worker.
“If the first legal opinion you get doesn’t help, try somewhere else,” he says. “Know your rights and don’t give up.”
Jarvis echoes Sawafuji’s advice. “Be aware of your rights,” he says. “Find colleagues or advice to help you and stick together. Just because you are a foreigner or a part-time worker, you still have rights.
“Japan is a civilized country,” adds Powers, “and if you are treated unfairly and stand up, there will be Japanese allies to help you.”
For more information on Houterasu, visit www.houterasu.or.jp.
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