Two English language teachers – a mother and son – who resisted unfair contracts at their Japanese eikaiwa (English conversation school) have won huge payouts after a two-and-a-half-year legal battle.
The pair were aided by a recently-qualified lawyer fighting his first case, who happened to be one of their students.
Mulele Jarvis, aged 48, had been teaching at the school for seven years, and in Japan for a total of 28 years. His mother Cindy Powers taught at the same school part-time. Jarvis told Japan Times he’d previously “signed pretty much whatever I was given.” In August 2016, management informed Jarvis and Powers, both salaried teachers, that the eikaiwa had a change of ownership and that they’d be given new contracts.
But these “questionable contracts” listed both teachers as “independent contractors” instead of “workers”, with no references to their existing holiday pay or overtime. Jarvis’s duration of service was wrongly given, with the company name misspelled several different ways.
While Jarvis was initially disinclined to make an issue of his contract, he was inspired by his mother, who “absolutely refused to sign.” Powers told Japan Times, “There’s a rumour that goes around the foreign community that we don’t have any rights… perpetuated by landlords and employers who need to discourage any protest. It’s not true.”
The two teachers showed their contracts to newly-qualified lawyer Taiga Sawafuji, a student of Jarvis who took their case on the basis of being paid on settlement. Sawafuji noted that 2013 amendments to the Labour Contracts Act give workers on a series of fixed-term contracts the right to a permanent contract after five years, and that the contracts’ wording on “independent contractors” was problematic. Teachers “cannot in normal situations be hired for a specific job without regard to hours or conditions. Teaching English is not that type of work,” he explained.
Jarvis described repeated threats of dismissal, as he and his mother refused to sign. Management made minor concessions to them, but their names disappeared from the teaching rota when they hadn’t signed by 1 January 2017. Sawafuji submitted a deposition to the Tokyo District Court soon after. He explained that if the court rules the deposition is justified, “the employer is required to pay living expenses for the employees while the entire legal process unfolds.”
Jarvis went unpaid until May 2017, when a judge awarded him living expenses of ¥250,000 a month. Powers received half that as she had another job. Jarvis described the “beautiful moment” when two “executioners” (officers of the court) accompanied him and his mother to collect their back pay from the company safes. Two more years of legal battles followed as the school rejected the judge’s offer to settle with one year’s salary in severance pay. Both Jarvis and Powers were awarded several years’ salary just weeks before a judge would have forced a settlement.
Sawafuji points to organisations such as the Japan Legal Support Centre that offer consultation on a needs-assessed basis and recommends joining a union. “Know your rights and don’t give up.”