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Teachers Strike After English School Says Corona Furlough Pay “Loan”

SNA (Tokyo) — Countless workers are struggling to make ends meet as the Covid-19 coronavirus leads to non-renewals, dispatch agency firings, and even non-payment of the furlough allowance. This includes English conversation schools, many of whose foreign instructors face economic hardship after losing their jobs.

Shane Corporation runs English conversation classrooms across the country. Some of its foreign language teachers belong to Tokyo General Union (Tozen Union), and they went on strike last month.

The roots of the dispute can be found in the spread of appalling work conditions stretching back to pre-Covid times; to financial hardship due to a cash advance system instituted by Shane management; and to the anger felt by employees toward a company that has ignored their voices.

Tozen Union estimates that Shane employs about 800 full-time teachers. They are hired on one-year fixed-term contracts with contract non-renewal hanging permanently over their heads. Shane sets their weekly work maximum at 29.5 hours, likely a device to evade the legal obligation to enroll employees working for 30 or more hours in the National Health Insurance system.

Thus, Shane instructors must enroll on their own in the National Health Insurance system. Instructor contracts guarantee about ¥250,000 (US$2,340) a month gross, but their take-home pay is much less, particularly when factoring in the National Health Insurance premium they must cough up without help from their employer.

Shane claims the interval between classes is unpaid break time, but this is a “break” in name only: teachers cannot leave the school and must wait on standby in case a potential student drops in for a demonstration lesson.

Tozen Union began to address these issues in 2012 with the formation of its Shane local chapter. The three founding members demanded an end to fixed-term employment as well as enrollment in the National Health Insurance and Employees’ Pension Insurance systems. The union has maintained these demands to this day.

During the intervening years, there have arisen many other problems with Shane’s treatment of teachers. Tozen Union says it has fought against unfair dismissals and other issues with three unfair labor practice cases in the Labor Relations Commission and with four court battles.

In one case, a Tozen Union member sued Shane over a non-renewal. The company had refused his application for paid leave in order to prepare for the care of a child, deeming the period absence without leave. In an upset victory for the union, the Tokyo High Court overturned a lower court’s ruling as well as Shane’s dismissal of the union member.

In response to the coronavirus this year, Tozen Union says Shane closed its schools between April 8, when the state of emergency was declared, and May 31. This ended up escalating the labor dispute.

Shane originally paid the ¥250,000 as normal for the period that it had ordered workers to stay home. From the employees’ perspective, management had paid the guaranteed 100% of their wages, just like any decent company under the circumstances.

But Shane’s management soon had other ideas: The workers soon discovered that the ¥250,000 was not provided as furlough allowance at all; rather, it was an advance on future salaries for work to be done after the June reopening. Shane said workers would have to work to pay back the salaries they had received for April. They had obtained no agreement from the employees regarding this matter. In effect, workers would receive not a single yen of furlough allowance despite the national emergency.

Several times during collective bargaining, Tozen Union asked the company to explain what the April and May payments represented, but management offered no explanation that they found to be acceptable. On June 29, the company presented two options in a letter to employees. The first option addressed what was paid for April and May by stipulating that employees would pay back all that had already been paid in excess of the legal minimum furlough allowance (the Labor Standards Act sets that at 60% of average daily pay, but that often amounts to about 40% of real pay). The second option was to keep the full 100% of what had been paid, but to provide free make-up lessons to students in order to repay their “debts.” Barring such future overtime hours, their future pay might be docked.

In an email, Shane explained to administrative staff that they would be made to pay back what they had received in April and May through six installments running from June through November, docking their pay the corresponding amount for each of these months.

This is likely a violation of Article 24 of the Labor Standards Act, which stipulates full payment of wages. Article 17 prohibits offsetting wages against a loan made against future work. Shane’s two options for workers likely violate this article as well.

Also, Labor Standards Act Article 26 stipulates a minimum payment of 60% of the workers’ average daily wage in the event the company ordered a suspension of operations furlough. If Shane paid zero, then it would certainly be an Labor Standards Act violation.

From a contractual ethics perspective, the workers can demand a full 100% payment of their wages. Even if the company had paid 100% of wages without explanation, this should be understood as payment of 100% of ordinary wages. Considered in this way, there arises no repayment obligation, but the precise parameters of the payment obligations will be decided only in individual court cases.

Tozen Union says that Shane has not applied for aid under the payroll protection program. If the company pays the furloughed employees their furlough allowance and applied for the aid, they would stand to get most of the cost back from the national government. Using such aid likely would have helped Shane avert its current state of affairs.

In short, Shane has refrained from using the government’s payroll protection program aid and instead has attempted to ram the financial burden down the throats of its workers.

After fruitless negotiations, Tozen Union determined that collective bargaining was going nowhere and decided to call a strike on June 27. The 23 foreign instructors who joined this action thus carried out the largest ever strike by Shane instructors.

Tozen Union is demanding 100% payment of the furlough allowance; an extra fortnight of paid leave granted to instructors infected with coronavirus; and a management-union committee to discuss workplace safety during the pandemic. These stipulations come in addition to the longstanding demands to change the contract period and enroll members in the National Health Insurance system.

In the past, the company had managed to arrange replacement teachers to cover for striking teachers, minimizing any potential adverse impact on classes. This time, however, some schools were forced to cancel lessons. A second strike involving 19 teachers was held on June 30, and again on July 1 there was a strike with 22 participating teachers. Company operations have begun to see an impact.

Some previously non-unionized instructors who had come to mistrust the company witnessed these strikes and began to get involved in the union.

Shane responded by demanding that employees to “repay the full amount if you want to resign.” One worker confided to the union that, “With the way they treat me, I want to quit. But I have no money, so I can’t quit until I pay it all back. It’s like being held captive.” Dissatisfied and anxious workers have flooded into the union, Tozen reports.

In face of these strikes, the company has been forced to give ground. Initially, Shane asked employees to pay back the full amount. This meant they had no intention to pay even a single yen of the furlough allowance. But after the 23 teachers struck on June 27, management softened its line and said that workers could keep the 60% as a furlough allowance and need only repay the other 40%.

Tozen Union remains firm in its position of demanding the full 100% furlough allowance.

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