ESL teachers left in limbo in Japan

660 Canadians among 4,000 out of work as 900-school Nova Group chain goes bankrupt

An estimated 4,000 foreign teachers, including about 660 from Canada, are without jobs after Japan’s largest school chain, Nova Group, closed its 900 schools and declared bankruptcy yesterday.

Many teachers are owed $4,000 in salary for September and October, said Catherine Campbell, a Cape Breton native who has taught English at various schools during 13 years in Japan.

“For many people, their rent has not been paid either, if they live in Nova housing,” said Campbell, who now represents teachers in Japan’s National Union of General Workers.

“The company deducts rent from their salary.”

“I’ve heard at least a dozen reports of eviction notices, very short, only two days in some cases,” Campbell said in an interview. “In some cases, they’ve gone to live with friends. In other cases, they are staying in the apartment even with an eviction notice. They still have a visa, and can find work elsewhere. But that’s the big problem. There’s a shortage of other jobs out there.”

Star calls to Nova Group’s Yonge and Davisville office in Toronto, its only location in Canada, were greeted by an answering machine.

Teachers and foreign union leaders say the Nova Group nightmare highlights the worsening treatment of foreign workers in Japan, once known for easy money during the 1980s bubble economy.

Workers characterize Nova Group, founded in 1981 and which now has 400,000 students, as an empire with a fly-by-night mentality that grew too big too fast, grabbing almost half of Japan’s burgeoning ESL market.

Nova Group’s problems multiplied earlier this year when a Japanese court ruled that it cheated thousands of students out of refund money, and created false ads, featuring a rabbit, that indicated students could study any time they wanted.

Campbell said Japan’s Industry Ministry neglected to monitor Nova from the beginning, and then over-reacted by banning the company from signing long-term deals with students.

“After that, Nova just started bleeding customers,” said Campbell. “The reports of staff not being paid accelerated the problems with their reputation.”

Teachers said about 2,000 Japanese staff, such as office workers, have not been paid since July in some cases.

Students, meanwhile, are demanding refunds. One Japanese college student, who asked not to be named, told a news conference yesterday that she recently paid 600,000 yen ($5,050) for three years worth of lessons. She plans legal action to reclaim 400,000 yen in refunds.

That might not be easy.

Osaka District Court yesterday granted Nova Group court protection from creditors under the Corporate Rehabilitation Law. Local press reports said the firm has debts estimated at 43.9 billion yen, or about $370 million dollars. The Jasdaq Securities Exchange in Tokyo suspended trading in Nova stock, and plans to de-list it on Nov 27.

The chain offered classes in conversational English, French, German, Spanish, Italian and Chinese. It recruited teachers at university campuses in Canada, the U.S., the U.K., and Australia, which supplied nearly half its foreign staff.