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By Angela Smyth

Killing the Golden Goose

A recent “victory” for foreign workers is not what it seems

Angela Smyth teaches English in Tokyo

It was with great dismay that I read in The Japan Times that Mr. Dennis Tesolat of The General Union in Osaka and Bob Tench, president of the Nova Union, have finally forced the Japanese government to investigate the English teaching industry for not enrolling foreign employees into the shakai hoken (social insurance) system. The union may be about to claim they have won a victory in getting instructors enrolled, but at what cost?

While the union’s legal position is that all employees of Japanese companies should be enrolled in the system, the rule is weakly enforced, and many companies that employ foreigners, especially those in the English teaching business, give their workers the benefit of taking private insurance instead. Until the union started their meddling, the government had turned a blind eye to the practice.

The misguided pursuit of this cause will lead to many foreigners being forced to pay at least ¥30,000 (assuming a salary of ¥250,000, much more for those on higher salaries) in health and pension payments they neither need or want. Compare that with the $138/month that a 26-year-old teacher can pay to receive top-grade private health care—a difference of over ¥200,000 a year.

Companies will also be forced to pay a minimum of ¥30,000 matching funds for each employee. The General Union in Osaka has estimated conservatively that Nova saves itself at least ¥1 billion (US$10 million) annually by not enrolling its teachers in the health insurance and pension schemes. But it’s a revealing figure, as it also means that Mssrs. Tesolat and Tench’s crusade will take US$10 million out of Nova teachers’ salaries.

There’s no doubt that some disgruntled instructors would like to see the big teaching companies get hit with a big bill, but companies will have to find this money from somewhere, and the result will almost certainly be job losses and lower salaries for foreign employees. Not to mention that any penalties, back payments and administrative costs will also be required, putting the entire industry, including many small schools run by foreigners, at risk.

Many schools claim, not unreasonably, that it is difficult to convince their teachers of the merits of joining the health and pension system because of the short duration of most teachers’ stays in Japan. According to the Justice Ministry some 90 percent of foreign residents in Japan stay for three years or less. For eikaiwa teachers, however, that figure rises to between 96 and 97 percent.

Mr. Tesolat says that teachers select private insurance because they do not have enough information. So here it is in simple terms: Choose shakai hoken for a minimum of ¥30,000/month, which gives you 70 percent medical coverage in a shared Japanese ward plus a pension you will never use; or choose private cover for around ¥10,000, which gives you almost 100 percent coverage (on a ¥1 million yen hospital bill, that saves ¥300,000 alone), including worldwide health cover, private rooms, some life insurance, travel insurance and hopefully unnecessary repatriation of your body to your home country. Unsurprisingly, 4,500 Nova teachers have private insurance. Most will have to give up this higher level of coverage if the union’s action bears fruit.

Enforcement also means that almost all foreign employees will have to pay into a pension system. The union clouds the issue by claiming that foreigners who have paid into the health and pension scheme for up to three years can get a refund for 85 percent of pension payments. However, the procedure to reclaim pension payments is laborious, and there is no refund of health insurance payments.

There were three main options open to the unions:

1. Do nothing: Maintain the current soft application of the law and take the benefits.

2. Work to change the law so that the benefit could be legalized. One option would be to allow foreign employees to opt out of payments until the employee becomes a permanent resident.

3. Call for strict application of the law and lose the benefits.

By calling for this last option, the union’s motivation is clear. “The purpose of this action is not to punish the companies but to make sure that the people who work for these companies are getting adequate health care,” Mr. Tesolat says. “It is expensive [and] it doesn’t offer the coverage it should, but it is better than not having it at all.”

One has to wonder about that word “punish.” Forcing employers to follow the letter of the law will mean that foreign workers are less insured, that there will be less money going into employees’ pockets, and that there will be job cuts—but that’s fine if it hurts the teaching industry. This isn’t the first time a small group of militant union members have caused serious harm to the people they claim to represent. Teachers should boot out these foolish representatives immediately and find some that will fight to keep money in their pockets, not to fritter it away to score points against management. The Golden Goose is dying. Mr. Tesolat and Mr. Tench are killing it.

Would you like to comment on this article? Send a letter to the editor at letters@metropolis.co.jp.

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