Unmasking the Dark Realities: Corruption and Exploitation in Japan’s ALT Program

Jul 17, 2023

General Union’s Ongoing Battle for Better Working Conditions and Justice

A Union Members Story

Almost 10 years ago, along with a cohort of 7 other Toowoomba (Australia) residents, I was hired as an Assistant English Teacher in Takatsuki. The Takatsuki AET program had been running for many years at that point as part of the sister city relationship with Toowoomba.

Before we arrived, we were informed that we’d be ‘provided’ accommodation. When we arrived, we discovered that this accommodation was at a low standard — the apartments were dirty, poorly maintained, and riddled with health and safety hazards. It soon became clear that these apartments were not only substandard, but thanks to the ‘generosity’ of our landlord, we were paying above market rate (this landlord, incidentally, was rewarded with keys to the city of Toowoomba — for fleecing AETs for substandard accommodation for over a decade).

Collectively we decided to find acceptable accommodation and move. This set off a chain of events that led to us discovering that the entire program was riddled with corruption, negligence, and violations of our rights as workers in Japan (to the point where, at one point, Takatsuki City officials tried to argue that we were not workers, but in fact “paid volunteers”, and thus were not owed the rights of workers). I won’t go into all the complex twists and turns of our experience (or you would be reading for a very long time), but suffice it to say the experience was disturbing and demoralizing.

Two good things arose from our experience, however: first, we met Toshiaki Asari (Toshi), who helped us at navigate an incredibly complex experience (which started with helping us to find suitable accommodation, and continued well after most of our cohort of AETs had left Japan) and never stopped fighting for us; second, we joined General Union.

That’s why I was honoured to be invited by Toshi (now chair of General Union), to the National Survey of ALT Working Conditions Symposium last month. The symposium was very well attended, including by 2 members of the National Diet of Japan who shared their words of wisdom and encouragement, as well as other elected officials, members of the press, union officials and, of course, dozens of ALTs working in a broad range of conditions.

The results of the survey, an impressive piece of data gathering, had some interesting results.

First, the majority of respondents worked for dispatch companies. Going into the symposium, I knew very little about dispatch companies (I was employed as a direct hire by the city BoE), but what I learned did not fill me with confidence. Dispatch ALTs have substantially lower rates of pay (disgracefully, in some cases, below the poverty line) and have much lower levels of satisfaction than direct hire or JET program ALTs. I was shocked to hear, during the symposium, from a first year ALT working for a dispatch company working at 11 schools!

It’s clear to me that the dispatch companies are in a race to the bottom: extracting value by promising savings, and providing those savings by exploiting their workers and, ultimately, sacrificing the quality of the education provided to Japanese students.

The problems aren’t limited to the dispatch companies, either. Both direct hire and JET workers are forced into precarious contracts, a precarity which both harms the workers and, ultimately, reduces the quality of education they’re able to provide.

These are big, systemic problems that will require big, systemic solutions. Fortunately, General Union is on the frontlines, fighting for — and winning — the workers rights of ALTs. It won’t be an easy victory, but I know General Union will keep fighting until the rights of all ALTs are won.

If you’re an ALT, you’ve read this far, and you aren’t already a member of General Union, I strongly recommend you join — you won’t regret it!