Canadian teachers unpaid in Japanese ESL woes

Some Canadian English teachers are among the thousands of worried workers left without prospects and paycheques in the wake of vast financial problems for Japan’s largest private language school.

Nova Group, which has 900 schools, employs about 7,000 foreign workers — more than any other Japanese company.

Thousands of young Canadians have worked for Nova since it launched in 1981. When the yen was strong and the Canadian dollar weak, it provided post-college employment to pay off student loans, and offered a cultural exchange opportunity and valuable work experience.

The school’s financial problems have been getting front-page treatment in Japan. They stem from an advertising scandal and rapid over-expansion that began four years ago. Problems worsened in June, after Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) imposed a six-month ban on the practice of signing students to long-term contracts.

The ban came after a Japanese court ruled Nova had lied about its services and cancellation policies when soliciting students. Their practices were similar to the methods North American gyms often use sign clients to long-term contracts.

The ban led to a sharp decline in revenue when many of the 400,000 students ended their enrolment abruptly. Facing a cash-crunch, Nova began delaying the payment of salaries to foreign teaching staff and Japanese staff.

On Friday, foreign teaching staff was supposed to receive their overdue paychecks. Instead, they received a fax expressing “greatest regrets” and a promise that salaries will be paid next Tuesday.

“All the procedures for depositing the salaries have been completed. However … these were not completed in time to deposit the salaries today,” read the fax.

This was the latest in a number of faxes that have been sent since July, all of which announce delays in salary deposits.

Julie Chalmers, a University of Ottawa graduate originally from Sudbury, began working for Nova three years ago in Kyoto. She decided not to renew her recently expired contract, but is still waiting to receive her salary for August and September.

“Nova is such a huge company that it never really cared about its workers. We are all just numbers and the huge turnover rate shows just that,” she told

Chalmers said Nova owes her about $2,600 for the month of August and estimates she’s due $1,700 for September. “I have no idea how I’ll get my money,” she said.

Business grad thought Nova would turnaround

Calgary-born Nabil Khan arrived in Japan two months ago, along with his fiancée. He was aware of Nova’s problems relating to the METI ban, but felt the company’s problems could be easily fixed given that Nova commanded the largest share of Japan’s multibillion-dollar private English teaching industry.

“When METI imposed the ban I saw no reason they couldn’t come out ahead … I looked at it from a strictly business point of view, many companies have been hit with much larger fines and penalties (Exxon after Valdez for example) and have made adjustments and come out ahead.

“The image of Nova was tarnished in the Japanese public’s eyes, but apologies and a true commitment to customer service would have fixed it. But nothing changed the company kept up its usual plan of operations. And to this day there seems like there is no one at the helm and we are on the Titanic as it is going down.”

Khan studied business at Memorial University in St. John’s and wanted to learn about Japan’s culture and language while seeking business opportunities in the country. He saw working at Nova as a way to get his foot in the door.

“I am owed over $2,000 from Nova and I don’t think I’ll see it. I have accepted it and am now looking for another job before there are another 7,000 teachers doing the same … at the moment, I look at it as volunteer work.”

Nova announced Friday it is closing about 200 of its 900 schools, many of which are located near train stations around the country. The company is hinting at further announcements next week.

In another fax sent to instructors on Friday, Nova CEO Nozomu Sahashi tried to reassure employees, writing: “The dark clouds that have been hanging heavily over us will be cast aside. I said previously ‘the darkest time is before the dawn’ and finally the first light of dawn can be seen … there will be no concerns regarding salaries from next month onwards. I cannot announce further details at the moment.”