Interac runs from collective bargaining

Unable after weeks to get Interac and its slippery Chairman Seiichi Matsumoto to agree to talks…or even to talk…even on the phone, Nambu Interac Branch and several other Nambu activists went to Interac HQ in Iidabashi Friday evening to demand collective bargaining.

We knew Interac HQ operates until 9pm so arriving at 7pm gave us plenty of wiggle room. When we reached the building, however, it was all locked up and the inside lobby was dark. Interac shares the building with several other firms so we were perplexed.

Stepping back we could see lights on the second floor. We pressed the button on the night intercom. Rain was falling steadily.

“This is the Interac union. We’re here for collective bargaining.”

“I didn’t hear anything about it. They all went home already.”
“We can see lights on their floor.”

And so it went – me and an unseen gruff man bickering about the right to pass. He refused to budge and cut the connection. Most of us knew of Interac management’s breathtaking cowardice – but were they such scaredey cats that they would hide in their office till 9? We later learned that they were scareder still.

Concerned that they might use an escape route, we sent a couple of scouts around to scour the base of the building for alternative exits. Garrett found a locked door at the top of a dark stairs.

We were just about to post a sentry there with a cellfone when from the darkness of the lobby a face appeared. Through the locked door he explained how to get to the garage which has an entrance. Being paranoid by nature I left a guard at the door in case the instruction was a ruse to decoy us away from the front door while Interac management snuck out.

The rest of us made our way to the garage entrance where a guard sat behind a desk and window. I prepared to confront him but he hadn’t noticed us so with mouth still poised to speak we walked by.

“Wait a minute. I can’t let you pass,” said a familiar voice.

Our right of passage – not really what this phrase means – evolved into a full-fledged debate: Greg proved he was an employee by showing his gaitoh-shoh (foreign registration card); the guard demonstrated that Interac had split by letting the phone ring.

Heated debate gave way to negotiations. I said let us go up and check the second floor. The guard agreed on condition that one person alone go and that I agree not to disturb any other company.

When the elevator doors opened I saw that Interac was indeed closed for business. Everything was dark, locked and brand new signs said, “No unauthorized personnel!” in Japanese and English. The lights we had seen from outside were at the company next door.

Back down at the underground garage level I conceded to the guard that Interac had left. The guard then made an admission of his own: “Well, they usually work till 9 but this evening they were in quite a hurry to leave by 6. They even asked me to hold a package that was to be picked up after they left.” The guard even apologized for his arrogance. I apologized and explained our predicament. I left my calling card.

So the entire HQ staff of the nation’s largest ALT dispatcher skedaddled out of work three hours early to avoid talking to five of their employees. I realized that Interac’s savvy anti-union strategy had a name: Operation Run-For-The-Hills.

Nationwide Probe of 750 Language Schools

The evening edition of the Asahi Shimbun carried a story by Ari Hirayama about a nationwide probe of 750 language schools suspected of not enrolling foreign teachers in shakai hoken (employee pension and health scheme), not only on the front page but as the top story. It even beat out Saddam Hussein’s indictment. Bob Tench, president of our Nova branch, was quoted before Berlitz’s personnel chief Masanori Iwai. Nova public relations department was quoted as saying they couldn’t get ahold of the person in charge of that issue.

New Nova hours pose health risk

Bob Tench, president of the Nova Teachers’ Union, argues that Nova’s attempts to “wriggle out of its obligations” under the insurance system, could leave teachers, particularly those with families, in an dangerous position should they become ill while working for the company and have to take time off work.

“Most teachers aren’t even aware of their health options here, and they’re unaware of the risks they’re taking by not enrolling in the system,” he says.

“Comparing teachers’ work time to that of their bosses is in clear breach of the law,” says Louis Carlet, deputy general secretary of the General Workers’ Union, Tokyo South.

“The law is clear,” he says, “that to be eligible for shakai hoken, your hours must be 75 percent of a full-time person doing the same job as you. The bosses in these schools are clearly not doing the same job.”

Foreign Teachers’ Concerns Voiced at Diet Hearings

On Friday 15 April, foreign teachers, members of NUGW Tokyo Nambu branch unions, assembled in a boisterous demonstration opposite the Diet building in Tokyo. Union members from Fukuoka, Iwate, Kobe, and Nagoya, as well as over 30 participants from Kanto, were present. “Being here really does make a difference,” said Louis Carlet, Nambu Deputy Secretary-General. Carlet introduced nine members currently in dispute and Diet Representative Kazuo Inoue, who pledged his commitment to human rights and to improving the working conditions of foreign teachers in Japan.

In the following hearing, NUGW members were supported by Democratic Party of Japan Representatives Inoue and Chiemi Kobayashi in quizzing seven officials from the ministries of Health, Labour and Welfare, and Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT). In opening remarks, Representative Kobayashi detailed problems faced by minorities in Japan, including the plight of refugees, the media emphasis on crimes by foreigners, and the need for greater understanding and exchange at the personal level.

As discussions got under way, Louis Carlet argued pushed for more effective Labor Standards Offices to eliminate unpaid wages and unpaid overtime. One sign of progress was the action of the Education Ministry in sending out notices to boards of education telling them to stop using illegal servicing contracts (gyomu itaku) for ALTs. Another issue raised was the increasing use of fixed-term non-renewable contracts. In support of this and other contentions, Robert Lohmann, UTU president, presented the translation of The University Teachers Union Survey of Foreign Nationals at Japanese Universities 2004. Over a quarter of the respondents were on fixed-term contracts, which threatened the security and livelihoods of teachers, both foreign and Japanese, and their families. Lohmann appealed for issues raised by the survey to be further investigated, and called for greater legal protection and security for foreign workers. Evan Heimlich, chair of the Kobe University Branch of Education Workers Amalgamated Union (EWA) Osaka, then raised the issue of the Tokunin systems which require foreign language teachers, with the expiration of their contracts, to compete for their own posts against ?fresh? applicants.

A statement in Japanese was presented to Inoue-san and the ministries’ officials. It generated considerable comment by the officials, but as in past hearings, on contract issues the bureaucrats consistently shirked responsibility. They referred to discriminatory policies as labor-management issues for adjudication on a case-by-case basis by the Labor Relations Commission.

Ten days later, at a hearing in the Diet Building, Representative Inoue posed questions to MEXT Minister Nariaki Nakayama concerning the state of English and other foreign language education in Japan with reference to the working conditions of foreign teachers in Japan. Inoue is concerned with the needs of Japan for native speaker language teachers in a changing economy and their treatment in Japan. Representatives of University Teachers Union, Fukuoka General Union, and the EWA have presented these issues to Inoue-san and other Diet members for discussion in hearings before Ministries officials.

Discriminatory practices against foreign workers in Japan are long-standing and well-documented. Union members must take focused, directed and ongoing action to overcome the institutional and cultural biases that constrain our actions and discount our contributions to our host country.

English schools face huge insurance probe

Bob Tench, president of the Nova Union, says that Nova’s failure to enroll its teachers while offering JMA insurance is irresponsible.

“This JMA insurance is only designed to ‘patch you up and ship you home,’ ” he says. “JMA is travel insurance and should not be used for everyday health care.

“The government and the teachers are being ripped off,” he says.

English on the Cheap

Dispatch companies employ teachers, so while they have an employer-employee relationship, the BOE (school) holds no legal relationship with the teacher. And while all workers in a school must be under the authority of the principal, in this situation, they are not. Also, if your company designates a method of teaching, but your team teacher tells you to do it another way, you could be in a position where you have to act against orders. This scenario has lead to dismissals through no real fault of the teacher. The Ministry of Education has sent a directive to all local governments telling them to stop this sub-contracting.

Public Hearing at Nagatacho

Foreign University Lecturers and Four Unions Meet Ministry Officials and Lawmakers

What was expected to be another lackluster negotiating sessions with junior officials of the Ministry of Education (MoE), the Ministry of Labor and Welfare (MoL/W) and the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) concerning the problems of foreign university teachers turned out to be the real deal this time. Seven or more lawmakers or their secretaries and 15 ministry officials met with over 30 union members and their supporters on March 8th at House of Councilors Conference Hall in Nagatacho, Tokyo. Requests and questions had been submitted in advance by Part-time Teachers? Union Tokyo (UPTL-Tokyo), University Teachers Union (UTU), Part-time Teachers?Union in Osaka (UPTL-Kansai) and Fukuoka General Union (FGU). The issues raised concerned limited-term contracts and their consequences, discrimination against foreign teachers, especially with regard to promotion and information policy, and the drawbacks of the Japanese pension system to foreigners who work for fewer than 25 years in Japan. The UTU Survey of Foreign Nationals at Japanese Universities 2004 had clearly depicted these matters as major issues. The bureaucrats read out their replies to the union presentations unemotionally and almost inaudibly, but rapidly, so that even some Japanese could not understand.

The ensuing discussion showed the government?s position ? discrimination based on nationality is prohibited by the Labour Standards Law, but the conditions foreigners are subject to are not explicitly prohibited or addressed by the Law. If they were, the ministries would have to take them on case-by-case, or individuals could take the cases to the Labour Council. Reiko Endo of the (UPTL-Kansai) emphatically insisted that we have many clear cases of discrimination. As one example, Noboru Shida, president of the UPTL-Tokyo, introduced an associate professor of English who has been working at International University of Health and Welfare in Tochigi for ten years, during which he has been the university’s only tenured foreign teacher. Now the university is trying to demote him and cut his pay because they say his Japanese is not good ? this, even though he’s developed many language programs, is more widely published than all of his department colleagues combined, and has among the highest student evaluations in the university. In addition, all foreign teachers (with the exception of two Chinese contract teachers who don’t belong to the labor union) have been, or will soon be, fired. Demands for response by lawmakers produced only meaningless, repetitious, mumbled answers from the bureaucrats.

The atmosphere changed when Arudou Debito of Sapporo described the case of Gwendolyn Gallagher who was fired from Asahikawa University because her Japanese was too good! She was considered no longer a ?fresh gaijin?. No response was heard from the ministries officials. At that point, FGU chairperson Stephanie Houghton stood up to contrast the way she felt as an ALT working for the Ministry of Education in 1993 with the way she now feels at her university on a limited non-renewable contract; a policy seemingly approved by the ministry. She said she was disgusted at the racism she now feels in Japan as an unwanted long-term native-speaker. Stephanie then quoted from the definition of racial discrimination given in the International Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination and asked whether the officials thought discrimination against culturally hybrid native-speakers of foreign languages (who no longer count as ?fresh gaijin?) counted as discrimination. Applause from the union side at her lively account ? embarrassment on the part of the officials.

Then, SPJ head Mizuho Fukushima stepped in to ask the officials to research the issues and provide written answers. The MoE official replied twice that they did not know whether any research had been done and whether any data existed. Stephanie reminded the officials that the Japanese government is obliged to submit reports to the United Nations on racial discrimination in Japan and asked how the government could possible do this if they did not research the problem. Once again, silence ensued. Lawmakers and unions once again pressured them to research the problems the unions had brought up and were ordered by Diet Member Fukushima to report to M. Kaneda`s office, in written form, and stated that the unions would be furnished the reports by Kaneda?s office. The hearing ended after 75 minutes.

The progress demonstrated at these hearings was the visible support of more Upper and Lower House representatives. The movement to secure equal treatment for foreign university instructors is gaining momentum, and the ministries cannot brush it aside easily anymore. But further cooperation among foreigners is required, as well as better networking among unions presenting foreigners? problems. For this reason, and for your own sake as a foreigner in Japan, take some interest these proceedings and support your labour unions in their struggle against discrimination, and for more stable workplaces. (HT-UTU)