A long term Berlitz teacher and union member shares his thoughts on working at Berlitz

Dec 24, 2014


Berlitz Japan provides students with high quality language lessons at a premium price. Ask any Berlitz instructor if this rings true and apart from the odd contortion of the shoulders and that ‘I know something you don’t know’ face the general consensus will be one of solid agreement. Simple business economics dictate a customer must perceive a fair trade between what they pay and what they receive or they’ll look elsewhere for their needs. Since 1966, Berlitz Japan has been trading successfully and can boast a high majority of very satisfied customers who see the company as more than just a boutique brand.

Traditionally, Berlitz marketed ‘The Berlitz Method of Instruction’ as a unique and integrated formula for language success and played down the role of the instructor as simply a vehicle to deliver the method. This has all changed and the Berlitz instructor has been ‘elevated’ to a symbol of quality. In fact, Berlitz Japan promoted the quality of its instructors as a marketing tool in an advertising campaign to highlight the low percentage of candidate instructors who ultimately join the company. The modern version of the Berlitz Method is simply a hybrid of Direct Method Teaching within a Communicative Approach and needed to add to the mysticism of historical narrative to promote a method that has not been unique in the language industry for a long time. Berlitz recognises the instructor is of primary importance and regardless of training there is a clear division between highly creative and methodical instructors against those who give their minimum and just go through the motions.

There was a time at Berlitz Japan when a contract, that some instructors are still on, offered a ‘Full Time Contract’ of 318,200 yen as a basic entry salary with an additional 15,000 yen housing allowance, 165,000 yen as a home travel allowance, and 42 units of work within a Monday to Friday schedule. This work load is comparable to an Instructor Contract (40 units) but the comparison abruptly stops there. These days, if an instructor asked for Saturday and Sunday or even just one of them as a rest day they may well be laughed out of the office.

As work conditions at Berlitz eroded over time, instructors took notice and felt the bite. The cumulative effect was having a dramatic impact on livelihoods and instructors felt the need to organise. The formation of the Berlitz Branch of the General Union came in 1993 in response to the rapidly deteriorating conditions and since then it has been a constant push to maintain and improve what we have. 

Unpaid Duties

When work conditions were fairer instructors would arrive well before the bell to prepare for lessons, complete multiple unpaid break time tasks, and even perform post lesson duties when that final bell rang in the knowledge that they would receive no extra benefit. But that was then.

Berlitz instructors are still obliged to perform these unpaid duties but on lower benefits. The company would not be able to function without the extra service these duties provide.

The issue of unpaid duties really began to come to a head with the introduction of Kids English in 2000. Berlitz Japan recognised that Kids English required a lot of out of classroom preparation and it was standard policy to assign one method unit of preparation for every four lessons taught. However, this policy was reviewed at the end of the 2000, and rescinded in a June 19, 2001 statement, which read that a more general policy should hold, “Instructors should be paid for work we expect them to do …the units assigned must reflect actual time required and spent, as agreed to between the instructor and the LC management.” In practice this allowed each language centre to create its own arbitrary policy with many schools offering nothing and at a push would provide one method for every 20 lessons taught. It is from this period that instructors in the General Union Berlitz Branch began to raise the issue of unpaid work duties with Berlitz and requested a fairer level of remuneration for duties that instructors were required to do. In the early days the company’s response was,

‘It’s not unreasonable to expect instructors to perform these unpaid duties in a sentiment of camaraderie’.

But Berlitz have recently decided to change tact and cycle statements stating that instructors are not required to perform any unpaid duties and any duties performed outside of the classroom are not recognised as work.

In 2007 Berlitz decided to make an offer to instructors in the union; drop the unpaid work demand and we’ll allow you easier access to social welfare benefits. Both the unpaid work and social welfare benefits issue have been amongst our core demands and instructors were not amused that Berlitz would consider trading two fundamental workers’ rights and this proposal was promptly declined.

In Spring 2008, union members sent individual letters to the Berlitz Japan president with a simple request for payment of duties performed before lessons, between lessons during the students’ break period, and after lessons. This request was refused with a simple note that all work that was assigned was paid in full. Instructors had been very fair on this issue and only requested payment for what was due and only after work conditions began to rapidly deteriorate. Some instructors carefully documented non lesson time duties and presented clear evidence of what was a necessary and fundamental part of our schedule. Our demand has always been pay us fairly for what we do; no more and no less.

Soon after, Berlitz Branch members and General Union officers visited the Labour Standards Office to submit complaints over non payment for work duties performed. This complaint was supported by a significant amount of supporting evidence from both instructors and incriminating evidence from Berlitz itself. After examining the evidence and visiting a Kansai based language centre, the Labour Standards Office made a simple request to the company to make sure that any work which was occurring was paid and that it was the company’s responsibility to monitor time worked.

The instructors who submitted the complaints permitted the matter to temporarily move away from the Labour Standards Office while negotiations took place on how payment would be made for both past and future work duties. Berlitz requested time to consider their options and at every turn since then has announced that no decision had been made and no date could be given on when a decision would be made.

Instructors have always been very patient and given Berlitz Japan the time and room it needs to make decisions and offer proposals. The end result typically brings an agreement that is fair and beneficial to both parties. However, on this matter, we are not dealing with a new set of language centre lockers; we are dealing with fundamental basic workers’ rights.

Berlitz Japan recently posted a memo, that in order to improve ‘communication’ there would be a revision to Berlitz instructor contracts and a change in remuneration would be made to reflect that the duties performed by instructors during break times would now be paid; in effect a clear and public statement that there are fundamental procedures to be performed by instructors outside of each 40 minute teaching unit. As a follow up to the memo, instructors received a hand delivered letter with details of how this change will affect them as an individual. The letter states very clearly that this is not about improving communications, but is about pay, the same demand which the union has made since 2007, ‘To change the entire five minutes between lessons from break time to work time and make that time paid’. The planned date for the changes is March 18, 2015.

By posting this memo and delivering individual letters to Berlitz Branch members that contain notice of arbitrary contract changes Berlitz has committed unfair labour practices and is in breach of Labour Standards and Trade Union Law as follows:

1. The Berlitz Branch of the General Union has a registered Collective Agreement with Berlitz that guarantees any changes to Berlitz Japan Work Rules including Policy and Procedures must be presented to the union for consideration.

2. Payment for unpaid work is still being negotiated during periodic collective bargaining sessions and has moved from an instructor/company issue to a union/labour standards office/company issue. By directly distributing letters outlining arbitrary contractual changes to individual union members the company is attempting to control and interfere with union activities.

At the same time the company has publicly admitted to instructors that break time should in fact be paid time. Instead of facing its legal responsibility via the union, Berlitz Japan has decided to manipulate the situation in its own favour by, on one hand, offering a token gesture increase in remuneration or a decrease in obligated unit count, while on the other, slipping in a number of back-door changes that see some engrained practices that are beneficial to instructors eliminated in a simple ‘by the way’ approach.

Berlitz appear to be acting in very bad faith and breaching numerous laws that were put in place to ensure instructors’ rights are protected. Instead of facing their responsibilities in an open and honest forum with the instructors through the union, back-door scheming work practices now place the company in potential dispute with only themselves to blame. Instructors have always been very fair with Berlitz with the aim of creating a balance to reflect the ever evolving changes in the working environment and society at large. Play by the rules Berlitz and develop an environment of trust.