I remember talking to a friend before I was supposed to begin teaching English here in Japan. “Don’t fool yourself,” he said. “Anyone can do this job—it’s the McJob of Asia.” Not the sort of advice a young graduate is going to take seriously, but after a few years in the game, I’m starting to see where he was coming from.
Teaching English in Japan was never dignified—nor was it ever going to be, with “genkiness” prized over “professionalism”—but at least it was well-compensated. Yet with Japan’s lost decade extending way past the 10-year mark, English teachers are feeling the recessional tug. Where once the JET program supplied public schools all over Japan with a fresh crop of graduates every year, now there’s a bleak landscape of dispatch companies feeding off the bloated body of government-run JET and cutting every corner (and labor law) they can. McJobs? It was once just a mildly funny joke. Now it’s a way of life for many Westerners trying to make a living teaching English.
Dispatch companies are a great deal for cash-strapped Board of Educations (BOEs). Not only can BOEs have native English speakers in local schools for a lower cost than either hiring privately or using the JET program, but the draining task of dealing with a crop of largely non-Japanese-speaking foreigners is farmed out to someone else. The BOEs save time and money; the act of hiring, firing and training recruits falls to the dispatches.
But for those of us employed by one of these dispatch companies, the difference is astounding. Forget the luxury of free airfares and subsidized housing—de rigueur even for jobs in South Korea. These days, most teachers do without health insurance, pension plans and unemployment insurance. Dispatch higher-ups will tell you this is because instructors work part-time hours. But with most teachers starting at 8 a.m. and working until 4 p.m., their excuses ring hollow. This situation is a clear violation of Japanese labor standards, but BOEs pass the buck, and dispatch companies laugh all the way to the bank.
The backwards regression doesn’t stop there. My own recent experience with a dispatch company left me working on a tourist visa for nearly three months. It’s a serious offense to be caught working without a proper visa, but my company told me it wasn’t a problem; it is common practice and I shouldn’t worry about it. But that didn’t change the fact it was illegal, and I dreaded approaching anyone who looked remotely like a police officer.
And let’s not forget it isn’t just about teachers getting screwed out of a decent salary. The students also get a bum deal. In a special report that ran on the Nippon News Network last summer, a panel of parents and students were interviewed about their English classes. One boy said that he had had as many as seven or eight teachers in one year, and another girl who had no less than four teachers said it was hard to make a connection with English instructors because they were constantly streaming in and out of school. The revolving door mentality of a McJob is rearing its ugly head.
When I was introduced at my local BOE just three months ago, the staff expressed hope that my fellow teachers and I would stay with them for many years. But if that was their goal, then they’re really clueless. They’ve provided no incentive to stay: my starting salary will never increase, and I’ll never get the full-time benefits mandated by law. I have been made to feel interchangeable and disposable. And I am: if I quit, there will be many other eager applicants waiting for my job.
If the BOEs really wanted to keep teachers around long-term, the first thing to do would be to increase private hires. But this can’t be done without the government enforcing labor legislation that’s already on the books. As it stands, the bidding system that many BOEs use to dish out contracts makes the dispatch companies that actually do follow the law uncompetitive. And so the downward spiral continues.
The heyday of the JET program is waning, and the good old times aren’t coming back. To be sure, JET had its problems—it was difficult to fire bad teachers, and good teachers couldn’t be retained for more than five years. Dispatch companies were supposed to fix these problems, but instead, they are adding to them. When you have four different English teachers in a school year, it’s a problem. When you have seven? It’s a complete failure on the part of the Japanese school system.
Lisa Gay works as an English teacher at a dispatch somewhere in Japan.
This story originally appeared in Metropolis magazine (www.metropolis.co.jp).© Japan Today