He became the Chair of the General Union (a labour union consisting of mainly foreign workers in Japan – head office in Kita Ward, Osaka City) two years ago. He participates in labor consultations with hundreds of union members (such as foreign English instructors), collective bargaining with various companies, and even court cases against the national government.
When NOVA, one of the major English conversation companies at the time, went bankrupt in 2007, he led the negotiations with the company as General Secretary of the union and successfully won re-employment for language instructors. “Just taking care of his own body must be hard work, but he always cares for others” a colleague of his says. Dennis, beside him, again gives a hearty laugh.
Dennis was born and grew up in Woodstock, in the south of Canada. His parents Italian immigrants. He was working in a pipe factory when he found an advertisement for an English-teaching job in Japan. He had never been to Japan, and could not speak Japanese. However, having himself grown up in a country with many immigrants, he found the possibility interesting and applied immediately.
He came to Japan in 1994, when he was 23 years old, and started his job at an English conversation school in Umeda. After he finished work on the very first day, his colleagues brought him to Hankyu Higashi-Dori Street. Filled with neon signs, gorgeous, wonderful – he shouted out, “WOW!!” in spite of himself.
“A place to work, a place to live, a place to play and a place to shop – all in one. All mixed together. It’s fun, and really convenient!” He felt like his immigrant parents must have felt and soon began to settle right in.
At that time, foreign language study was quite popular. Many foreign language schools sprung up in various places, and labor issues of foreign language instructors started to attract public attention in Japan. The General Union was established in 1991 and, after being invited to join by a colleague in his first year in Japan, he became a union member and later joined the staff while working as an instructor.
In 2000, while working at a different school, he married a Japanese woman. They had two boys. Everything seemed to be going well.
Then in 2009, without warning, he basically collapsed. He was brought to the hospital and told that he had fallen victim to an intractable congenital disease, an arteriovenous malformation and was paralysed from the waist down. He was hospitalised for more than a year and had two operations.
The English conversation school where he was working made efforts to keep him employed, making sure the class room was wheelchair-accessible and so on. However, working there along with his rehabilitation was very difficult and he opted to resign from the school and instead work as a regular union official.
Nowadays, foreign workers are found not only in the language business, but also in major companies and subcontracting companies. The number of consultations keeps increasing including issues like,”the company refuses to enroll me in social insurance”. Although it is difficult to understand the labor laws and insurance system in Japan, he says, “Even with many difficulties, I am happy that I can do my best to help my fellow workers in Japan.”
He’s now finished for the day and leaving a huge pile of documents on his desk in the union office, he departs for the train station. To get home takes the Keihan Line to Senbayashi Station.
“Have a nice evening,” “Hi, what’s up!” he is greeted by shop owners and other shoppers in the local shopping arcade. He cannot go straight home. Sometimes, he ends up talking to someone he’s just me while smoking and ends up going for a drink together.
“We have a lot of shops, and people are friendly here,” he says. Before being paralyzed, he loved the nearby public bath and made many friends there.
He now worries about the future of this shopping arcade, where some shops have already closed. “There are elderly or physically challenged people who can’t go far away, because they can’t use a bike or a car. We have to protect local shops and human relations among neighbors.”
He suffers pain in his legs and still goes to the hospital for rehabilitation to prepare for the day he might walk again. Asked if he feels that living in Japan, he again laughs heartily and says, “I grew up with my parents who are immigrants, so I’m not frustrated by a different culture or environment. I enjoy every day.”
–translated from Japanese. See the original online or from this pdf.