A Union Story By Emiko Ogawa: What We Can Change and Protect at Our Schools with Unions

Aug 11, 2023

“Why not take action to make a change, instead of just complaining?”

These words were my first encounter with a labor union. At the time, I was working as an instructor at a children’s English conversation school with locations all over Japan. The job itself was rewarding. I could use my English skills, see the growth of my students everyday, and learn from working together with people from all over the world.

However, the treatment of the Japanese instructors at my school was terrible. I was paid the minimum wage, working on holidays, no paid holidays or overtime, and no social insurance.

Until I asked about it.

With this kind of treatment from my employer, it was difficult to live independently. This school was not a place someone could work for a long time. There was a lot of turnover in the teaching staff, and I thought that after working there for a few years and gaining experience, I would move on to a better place.

The difference in treatment between Japanese and non-Japanese instructors was unsatisfactory.

The Japanese tutors were responsible not only for lessons, but also for classroom management, parental support, event planning/management, and student recruitment. Yet, the salary was half that of a foreign teacher who only gave lessons, even though she was working full time. With the increase in the minimum wage, the salaries of Japanese instructors have been rising in recent years, but even so, compared to the average monthly salary of a foreign instructor at a major English conversation school, most Japanese instructors and staff are paid 70,000 to 80,000 yen less.

Much of the education industry is built on the motivation and love of the people who work as teachers for their students. If you don’t do something to change these working conditions, it will be the same thing at any English conversation school. It would have been easy to quit, but I love teaching. I want to see my students grow, I want to keep teaching, but it’s hard to keep working under those kinds of conditions.

I was struggling with this when my foreign colleague said to me:

Unions are organizations formed by workers based on the “Trade Union Law” and the “Three Labor Rights” for the purpose of improving and maintaining working conditions. By uniting workers who are in a weaker position than their employers, they can negotiate with their employers on an equal footing.

Here are some of the main initiatives unions take on behalf of their members

Submitting demands

Some employers don’t realize they are doing something illegal. Notifying them in writing that something is wrong will help them improve, and follow the law.

Collective Bargaining

If the situation does not improve with a written notice, or if it is better to have a direct meeting with the employer, collective bargaining can begin. At the school where I worked, collective bargaining was held on a regular basis. The union has experienced members who are well versed in labour standards and other laws. They offered me and other members advice from their years of experience.


Problems that cannot be resolved through collective bargaining between workers and employers are submitted to the Prefectural Labor Relations Commission, where a mediation committee member will work with the employer to reach a solution. If the problem cannot be resolved, strikes, conciliation, or court proceedings may help resolve the issue.

Here are some things I have personally done to improve my working conditions as a unionized worker. Although the environment has changed over the past decade, I hope sharing my experience will be helpful to those who facing similar problems.

Disclosure of working regulations

When my grandmother passed away, I was told that there was no paid leave or condolence leave. The union demanded disclosure of the working regulations, and I found that paid vacations, condolence leave, and menstrual leave were available.

Classroom operating expenses

Since there was no telephone in the classroom, I used my personal cell phone to respond to inquiries and communicate with parents. Each student was charged 20 yen/month for phone calls and classroom operation expenses. Classroom supplies, picture books, games used in lessons, and photocopies of teaching materials were also paid for out of the classroom management fee. Of course, this was not enough. I had to buy them myself, with my own money.

After discussing this issue with the company through the union, each classroom was provided with a cell phone. Although the amount of the classroom management fee remained unchanged, the fee for events increased.

Allowances for working on holidays, overtime, etc.

Every summer, a two-day overnight summer camp was held. We ate and slept with the children.  Children cried because they were lonely at night or some were too excited to sleep, which meant little to no sleep for the instructors caring for them.

I calculated my work hours from the camp and claimed holiday and overtime pay. The full allowance was paid as requested, and later, when I worked on holidays for substitute teaching, I requested and received that extra pay.

I know it’s difficult to speak up alone. In a labour union you are not alone. I want all workers to know their rights, and to let others around them know theirs. Joining a labour union is a great way to start taking action to improve your workplace.

Do you have a problem at your school? Do you have a question about your rights as a worker? Members and non-members are welcome to join our monthly Eikaiwa Q&A forum on Zoom to have your questions answered Read More Here