Fighting for Change: General Union’s Look Back and Plans for the Language School Industry in 2024 

2023 marked a period of gradual recovery in the language school industry, characterized by major corporations tightening their grip on acquisitions and the introduction of a new government tax reporting system. These changes in management strategies have significantly impacted working conditions across the country. In this reflection, we delve into how General Union responded to these challenges in 2023 and how these experiences will shape our goals for the upcoming year.

Big Discussions with the Big Five: Winning Wages and Benefits

Wage increases are always at the top of the list when it comes to demands, and 2023 saw substantial victories on these and other benefits: At Berlitz, we have won members the company’s first base pay raise in 30 years! A small step at 2.5%, but certainly one in the right direction! And at AEON this year, our members won the unprecedented option for foreign teachers at AEON to become seishain. These exciting successes are set to influence future demands across various workplaces. 

Another key focus in 2023 was health and safety, particularly in the wake of companies’ management of COVID-related concerns. Attention turned to advocating for menstrual leave rights and enhancing workplace safety measures. Notably, companies like NOVA and ECC lacked provisions for menstrual leave, despite it being clearly stipulated in Article 68 of the Labor Standards Act. Once this oversight was raised by General Union’s workplace branches, the companies swiftly implemented corrections to their working regulations.  

Meanwhile, members from companies including GABA, Berlitz, and AEON sought to instigate safety drills during work hours to ensure preparedness for emergencies—something that feels particularly urgent in the wake of the January 1 Noto Earthquake. With these victories in our pocket and disaster recovery fresh on everyone’s mind, we hope to continue improving safety standards at language schools in 2024.

The Fight for Individual Rights 

Demands with our workplace branches make up only a small portion of the work we have been doing. Individual grievances and fights at smaller workplaces, too, have been given a lot of energy this year. Companies continually try to force out their workers unfairly, and through established grievance procedure and discussion with the company, we have been able to retain employment of our members at such major companies as AEON and NOVA when we found their nonrenewal unjustified. At the same time, we sought and earned our members wages and transportation reimbursements that were unfairly withheld.

Individual issues crop up at every company, and it can be difficult to know how to get what you are owed on your own. Already in 2024 we are gearing up to help our members with excessive overtime, unfair salary deductions, and free use of their paid leave. Join General Union and we can help you manage your individual cases so you can put more energy into working with your colleagues to improve your own company!

Ongoing Industry Battles 

Not every unfair dismissal is as easy to win, however, and small companies can sometimes be more obstinate and unfair than their corporate counterparts: the fight at Brighton House in Aichi prefecture continues at the Osaka Labor Commission, where the owner refuses to adequately justify or apologize for his simultaneous dismissal of our four members – one of whom was on an Unlimited Term Contract – immediately after their declaration. International School of English in Yokohama is likewise stubbornly refusing to recognize their workers as employees, in spite of steadily mounting evidence otherwise.  

At the same time, the shadow of NOVA looms large. The company’s actions, including the forced enrollment of contract workers into the government’s Invoice Program and plans to fine workers for absences, even due to illness, pose significant challenges to the industry’s progress. In 2024, we anticipate prolonged battles with NOVA to safeguard basic human rights and ensure continued improvements in the industry. 

In 2024, we will make the lawyers enlisted by these companies see reason, if not the owners themselves, and amend these unfair decisions! 

Calling on Japanese Workers 

As we tackle workplace issues at companies both large and small, General Union is a fairly recognizable name among foreign workers across Japan. However, Japanese workers make up just as much of the Language School industry as native speakers.  

With this in mind, we began more dedicated organizing for Japanese workers in 2023: in Fukuoka, regular training sessions are being held to equip workers with skills and knowledge necessary to assist in labor rights consultations. Meanwhile in Kansai, efforts have been made to reach out to workers nationwide more socially, with quarterly meetings being planned to organize industry workers, specifically.  

As we strive to reach our goal of 1000 members, we hope to witness an increasing number of Japanese workers joining forces with their foreign colleagues to advocate for industry improvements! 

Fighting for Industry Improvements in 2024 

With reflection on both our progress and setbacks, we look forward to 2024 where we plan to focus on improving standards across the industry. Starting right from January, we are working on researching current conditions across the country at companies large and small, and using these to shape our demands later in the year. At the same time, we are preparing demands for companies to follow Berlitz’s example to offer substantial pay rises for all of those in our workplace branches.  

Of course, progress in the industry requires collective efforts. Join General Union and raise your voice as we call on companies to level the playing field of working conditions!