Wednesday, February 07, 2007

The Wages Grudge Match

Many foreigners working as teachers in Japan may find themselves encountering animosity or jealousy from Japanese coworkers over what they feel are unfair working conditions. That is, they feel foreign employees are underworked and overpaid relative to Japanese employees. This attitude results from a variety of factors which mislead both the Japanese staff and the foreign teachers into thinking the situation for teachers is much rosier than it actually is.

In order to truly understand the situation, you have to consider the differences in the Japanese job market as well as the salary structure in Japan compared to western countries. Like many things in Japan, the payment situation is complex and varies on a case-by-case basis. However, you can break things down into general categories with what I'm sure are may exceptions on an individual basis.

Here are three very general categories of employment for Japanese people:

Category 1: Hourly wage-based work

This is work which is generally done by people who have not completed higher education (that is, they have only completed high school). This type of work is the sort of thing many people do in transition with the exception of skilled labor (like construction work). This type of work may pay as low as minimum wage and generally does not represent any opportunity for advancement. In Tokyo, the minimum wage tends to be about 900 yen an hour. Since this is essentially "unskilled" work and foreigners who work as teachers in Japan must have a university degree to qualify for visa sponsorship, this type of wage and work cannot be compared to that which teachers do.

Mimimum wage work generally requires no education beyond high school. Just as you expect people in MacDonald's in the U.S. to make less than a high school teacher, you can expect the same of Japanese minimum wage workers and foreign teachers in Japan.

Category 2: Contract work

These types of workers span a wide variety of jobs requiring many different skills. The commonality is that these employees work a set number of hours for a set wage which is usually between 150,000-220,000 yen a month for a 40-hour week. The big difference between these workers and the final category of workers is that they do not work unpaid overtime. If they work overtime, they are paid for the extra hours.

This type of employee tends to be female and have a junior college level education or a liberal arts degree from a school which isn't from the top 5-10 universities. Such people are often married and working mainly to augment lifestyle or income but also sometimes they are young women (or, more rarely, men) in transition who hope to secure a better situation after gaining skills or experience.

These types of Japanese employees are roughly analogous to foreign workers in terms of how their wages and working conditions are handled though not the same in terms of workload, expectations or required skill level. However, these employees are the type that frequently experience seasonal "down time" and are working very hard at times and killing time at others. Foreign employees usually work the same year round at the nearly full capacity of their schedules.

This is the type of office lady/secretary that foreign workers often work with in schools. They do the scheduling, answer the phones and handle students. This type of worker is the type of person you are most likely to have problems with or experience resentment from as they are generally not valued by the company and often succumb to pressure to work unpaid overtime despite the fact that it is against the law for companies to compel them to do so.

Category 3: Company workers

This is the type of worker that is the stuff of stereotypes. They work long hours and often feel a lot of pressure to do well for their companies. It's also where the greatest confusion comes in as these types of workers undergo a transformation in working conditions and salary as they continue to work at Japanese companies.

Typically, a university graduate is employed by a company with few or no skills relevant to his or her future job. In fact, most of them do not know precisely what job they will do when recruited at the beginning of their senior year. During their initial years, they work hard, learn the ropes, and are relatively low paid. As they stay longer at the company, they get paid more as they are seen as more productive. In some companies, salary increases when one marries or has children. When such employees reach their 30's, they start to make a pretty good wage in the vicinity of what English teachers make. As they reach their 40's, they will make 300,000-450,000 yen a month in most cases. By their 50's most are making over 400,000 a month depending on the company. Senior manager types may make as much as (or more than) 500,000 yen a month by the time of retirement. You can generally guess a salaried employee's monthly take by their title. A bucho tends to be in the 400,000-500,000 yen range.

In general, salaried employees get a raw deal initially and later do far better (though that has been changing recently, it hasn't changed as much as everyone believes).

Why Foreigners Should Be Paid More:

Among salaried workers, there are a wide variety of benefits that you don't get as a contract employee. Most foreigners working in Japan (particularly teachers) are contract workers. Among the perks foreigners do not get are:
  • Free company housing/large housing supplements. I'm not talking about cheaper rent and a lower wage like the language schools give. I'm talking about people who get a place free or for 10,000-30,000 yen a month. Some companies provide complete housing free of charge and others may offer up to 100,000 yen a month as a housing bonus.
  • Paid national holidays. The Japanese have 12 national holidays and most of the weekend days have been moved over to Mondays. That is a minimum of 10 days a year the Japanese get which foreign staff usually do not. In the golden age, teachers used to get paid national holidays. It's rarer and rarer for that to be the case.
  • National health insurance supplemental pay. If you're paying your own health insurance, you may be forking over 20,000-30,000 yen a month from a usual teacher's salary. Japanese staff often get 50% of that covered by the company.
  • The biggest difference of all is that foreigners are rarely involved in the twice yearly bonus system. Contract employees are paid more on a monthly basis but do not get the "balloon" payment in summer and winter that company workers do. Most companies give salaried workers between one and three months (typically, two months) pay twice a year. The Japanese who resent foreign salaries conveniently disregard factoring in the 4 extra months of wages they get which we do not.
There are also a variety of circumstantial differences which factor into the pay difference.
  • Foreign workers are rare. They may not be as rare as they used to be but the law of supply and demand requires we be paid more to make it worthwhile being here.
  • Foreign workers work harder even if Japanese workers work longer. I know a lot of people will quibble with this but teaching in Japan is harder than nearly any other country because the students are so passive. You have to pour a lot of energy into your work and often get little or nothing back. It's stressful and exhausting. If you don't pay a better wage, no one will do it.
  • Foreign employees work without a security net. If you like, you can consider extra compensation a way of adjusting for the fact that we have no family, friends, or support network in many cases to fall back on in cases of financial hardship.
  • Most foreign workers who become teachers come over with debt from university. You can't afford to work for 200,000 yen a month if you've got bills to pay. Most Japanese students walk away from university debt-free. If you require employees with a university diploma, the wage you offer has to be enough to make the job worthwhile for them considering their typical circumstances. New employees who make less than the average teacher live in company dorms or at home with their parents and have no college debt. We don't have that luxury.
  • If you work here, you don't pay in to any sort of retirment fund (like social security) as a teacher. You also have no unemployment insurance or possibility of severance if you are fired. You have to make enough to sock it away for yourself.
I've found that the main friction regarding teachers and staff who feel they are overpaid comes from "category 2" workers who are paid little and have little opportunity for advancement. A disproportionate number of those workers are female, unappreciated, and unrewarded in any way for their talents or extra effort. They carry a whole host of issues outside of feeling that teachers make more without working long hours. You find if you work in an office with salaried male employees that they are making as much or more than you and tend not to think you're spoiled and overpaid.

The bottom line though is always going to be supply and demand. If we get paid more for working fewer hours, it's because that's what the market will bear.


Andrew said...

As always, it's the hidden details that make the difference. You make a persuasive case!

Helen said...

Thanks for posting about this. This was one of my main beefs about working for the Eikaiwa. The Japanese staff always seemed jealous about my salary, but they seem to forget that there were downsides for me too.

They got to visit their families several times a year, I was lucky if I saw mine once a year. I had to deal with homesickness, culture shock and just plain old not understanding so much of Japanese life.

I was fortunate enough to have paid off my student loans before I came over, but I did have to pay for my own airfare. My rent here was much higher than it was in Canada, although my first apartment was very nice. My coworkers were surprised when they found out that I had to pay rent. They somehow thought the company paid for it!

Thanks for the post on this topic.

Shari said...

Thanks to both of you, Andrew and Helen for your comments.

The main reason I wanted to post this is that I think that a lot of people who work as teachers are only exposed to the sob stories of the low-paid female employees at language schools. They are not representative of the majority of workers in Japan. The big picture shows how foreigners are far from the highest paid people in Japan and how they make assumptions that we get the benefits they do.

Brenda said...

I'll apologize in advance for the long, rantish post, Shari!

Again, my experiences are only with AEON, so...

In evaluating any company I was interested in, I would look at how the company treats all it's employees. If a company treats foreigner workers poorly, it's probably a safe bet that they're also treating the Japanese workers poorly. If people are complaining on the internet about the company, pay, hours, living conditions, and jealousy and unfairness in the workplace, well, it's not the place I want to work.

At AEON, there were no non-degreed (as in college degrees) workers at the school where I worked (the corporate offices may have employed non-degreed OLs). The Japanese employees with degrees and far more experience as teachers still made less money for more hours/work than did the foreign teachers, many of whom where fresh out of college and had little experience in the workplace--any workplace--much less teaching skills. Japanese employees could take advantage of rent-controlled company apartments, but only if they chose to live alone. (And I think a lot of Japanese employees who live in the very low-rent places are living in dormitory-type housing, which I would never but never live in.) And, for any Japanese employee, full-time, year-long contracts were very difficult to come by.

Japanese employees may have received twice-yearly bonuses, but I received a higher annual salary and a bonus and the cash equivalent of a ticket home when I finished my contract, and that amount was about the same as if I had received the twice-yearly bonus.

Too, the Japanese teachers had to do a lot more student-interactive type stuff than did the foreign teachers, simply because when students had questions they were more comfortable talking to a Japanese teacher. And, if the schools management was busy, it certainly wasn't the foreign teachers answering the phones to deal with students who wanted to cancel and reschedule, etc. The Japanese employees were all bilingual, a skill that in the US would net them a higher salary than a monolingual employee. They were also expected to act as translators for foreign teachers in situations where we needed them to, as when we were signing up for things like internet service, gym memberships, bank accounts, cell phone contracts, etc. Translators make between 5,000 and 8,000 yen per hour, and the Japanese staff were expected to perform this task out of the goodness of their hearts. And maybe I was lucky, but I never heard a single Japanese employee, male or female, complain about the pay/work difference. It was only when I started to ask that I realized that this could be causing some resentment between Japanese and foreign workers. The Japanese employees at my school were all consumate professionals who kept their own counsel about such things.

And I'm sorry, but there are just some things that you have to suck up about living and working in a foreign country. You should know before you go that you're going to suffer from homesickness and culture shock. Asking a company to pay you more for this is like asking a company in the US to pay you more because you have to deal with office politics. AEON's training course for all new teachers addressed these problems (as well as giving a crash course in cultural differences, because, well, you'd be shocked at how many people show up with zero knowledge about the culture of the place they've signed up to spend a year in.)

And as for the knowledge that its likely you aren't going to see your family? Well, AEON was pretty up front during recruitment about the fact that it's pretty damned expensive to get home and that if this is going to be a problem for you, you probably don't want to work in Japan.

There is plenty to gripe about in a Japanese work environment--just as there is plenty to gripe about in a US work environment. Here, it's difficult to get a job that offers any benefits, including insurance at any price. I received far more paid leave during the first year in Japan than I have in any job I've held in the US. There are jealous coworkers and office politics in jobs here, too. And in the state where I live now, it's impossible to land a teaching job that pays what eikawas pay--and schools here expect far more from teachers than eikawas in Japan did. And as a teacher, for every quiet Japanese student that I had to deal with, I've had to deal with an American student with emotional and behavioral problems. I'd much rather expend my energy drawing out someone who is reticent than trying to figure out how to discipline an out-of-control student.

Of course, foreign workers aren't the highest paid workers in Japan--but most don't have any right (given the experience they bring to the table) to expect to be. There's a reason that eikawas generally hire recent college grads who have little or no experience. You can pay them less and work them harder than experienced, professional teachers.

Shari said...

Brenda: My point is that foreigners are not massively overpaid, not that Japanese teachers should be paid less than them. The issues of how each party is paid are totally separate ones. There is no relationship between underpaid Japanese and foreign salaries.

There are market forces at work which are the reason why Japanese are paid less than foreigners. They compete with other Japanese people with similar skill sets. There are more of them willing to do the job so salaries go down.

There are fewer foreigners who will put up with being here and dealing with all the other involved issues. Yes, people know they will experience culture shock and be home sick so you're not going to get them to work here for bottom of the barrel wages. That doesn't mean we're lavishly overpaid just because Japanese teachers are paid less.

It all comes down to the pool of talent. If a company fishes from a small pool (the foreigners), they have to offer more to get the people they need. If a company fishes from a large pool (the Japanese staff), they can pay less.

I respectfully submit that you have very limited experience with the "big picture" of Japanese employment and pay. The people you work with in conversation schools are often those who have less to offer in the broad market of Japanese employment relative to other types of workers. They have crap jobs because they aren't qualified or interested in doing anything else. That is not a suggestion that they aren't good at what they do but that their skillset is not sufficiently attractive to get a better job. In the Japanese market, this generally means they didn't go to a good enough school, don't have an official teaching qualification, or a higher degree.

Foreigners with less ability, experience or whatnot get paid more than those hard-working Japanese because they bring something else to the table - being native speakers from a foreign country. That's not all they bring but it's pretty valuable. If the Japanese employees had more to offer in the larger job market, they wouldn't be working at low-paid jobs in language schools. The bottom line is a lot of Japanese people apply for those jobs and are qualified to do them so they don't make much money.

There's a reason parents are so caught up in getting their kids on the fast track to big name schools and one of those reasons is that they get far better jobs. You can bet there are very few Waseda or Keio graduates making 170,000 yen a month at chain conversation schools.

If you had some experience working in a more typical work environment, you'd see that there are a lot of Japanese people making a good deal more than foreigners and that the envy is misplaced.

Foreigners being paid more than some Japanese isn't validation for treating them like crap in the workplace, cheating them, or disrespecting them. How low do our wages have to be before we qualify for the right to "whine" about being treated badly? No one deserves to be treated poorly no matter what their salary.

Brenda said...

No, you're right, Shari, we have every right to whine (as you say) about poor treatment. But I never saw in Japan that whining about anything netted any more than a "typical gaijin" response from the Japanese. (Which doesn't make it right, but there you go.) I think that foreigners are underpaid and overworked. I also feel that Japanese are underpaid and overworked.

As far as my work experience in Japan being atypical, I tend to agree. I worked with a group of Japanese teachers that did include a Waseda graduate (a woman who was returning to the job market following a divorce and who had worked in film and television in the US), a woman who had taught ESL students in New York (and who owned her own business in Tokyo and who worked for supplemental income), another woman who was a graduate student from the University of Hawaii (doing research in Tokyo). I worked with a teacher who was translators for Nissan (and who loved teaching so much that she did it part time), a teacher who had a CPA degree, and one who had a degree in philosophy from a Canadian university. I worked with a teacher who had graduated from Sophia University with a degree in anthropology. We were a professional, well-educated group of people. From what I understand from your post, that is an unusual working situation for an eikawa who, what, hire mostly unambitious Japanese? Japanese who can't find better jobs in a recession economy?

Anyway, what I did find in my time with such a talented, educated staff was that, given this talent pool and level of professionalism and expertise, these Japanese were not treated any better than were the employees you refer to as "type 2," the OL-types. What I conclude then is that the situation is not one that is solely the result of whiny, uneducated, jealous Japanese, but one that is inherent in the eikawa system itself and that affects foreign and Japanese workers. Eikawas take advantage of foreigners, yes, but they also take advantage of a pool of Japanese who for whatever reason, can't find jobs given their sometimes remarkably high skill level.

Now, for me, it was interesting to look at the reasons why some Japanese with such skills can't find jobs. Sure, the economy isn't the greatest, but there are other reasons. Sadly, most of the teachers I worked with were women, and the fact is that women in Japan have a problem finding jobs no matter what their skill level. Women in their thirties and divorced women are particularly vulnerable, no matter what their background. Welcome to Japan. I think that's pretty wrong. Which is one reason I left Japan.

Well, that, and because I missed pizza without corn and mayo.

I guess I've seen the situation from the other side, the side from which I did work with some of the best and brightest--or at least they would be in America. But in Japan? Nope. They still had the same troubles foreign workers did.

Again, I'll admit that my experience is atypical. Unlike many foreign teachers, I made it my business to form friendships and alliances with the Japanese teachers so that I could better understand their side of things and in doing so try to bring down the wall between foreign and Japanese employees. I also expressed some sympathy for their plight in such a restrictive, unrewarding workplace. So, yes, that was atypcial. Also atypical is the fact that I didn't work at some school in the sticks but in a very prestigious part of Tokyo, where students came expecting mature, professional, educated teachers. And we were, which it seems is definitely not typical of most eikawas.

Shari said...

Brenda: Just for the record, I appreciate your long comments and perspective. :-)

I can't say that I agree that most teachers don't make friends with the Japanese staff they work with. I did. I was in a lot of the gripes the staff had and the gossip (like who was sleeping with who and that the president wore a toupee), particularly the women. My husband went shopping recently with one of the women working at his school. I have had former coworkers over for dinner. It's not that unusual.

I think that your situation was slightly unusual if you had that many highly-qualified, low-paid people. I don't know what AEON teachers who are Japanese make but if they are making 200,000 yen a month and get the bonuses 99% of Japanese staff get, they weren't that far behind you in wages when you factor in 3 more months of wages (your bonus cancelling out one month of theirs) - they'd be averaging 250,000 yen a month. If they made less than 200,000 yen and were teaching, I'd be surprised since most OL make around 170,000 yen.

All I can say is that Japanese women generally but not always get a raw deal in the workplace. My brother-in-law's girlfriend made more than he does teaching at a college (I think he said she made 500,000 yen a month and she's in her early 40's). My former coworkers who were non-OL staff (sales and management) made between 250,00-400,000 yen a month. Japanese teachers of English and Chinese at my former company made between 2500-3500 yen an hour depending on experience level. As a point of comparison, I made 1800 yen an hour (but I'm not complaining - I loved my former job).

My former company was a dinky little place that couldn't pay huge wages. However, my information comes not only from working at my company and Nova but having interviewed about 10,000 people (literally) in the past decade or so and forming a general understanding of how things work. Some of my information comes from my students, too, of course.

I don't think the economy is particularly depressed now but I do believe that anyone who doesn't get on board the right job train can be left out in the cold in Japan. This can be doubly so if you work abroad since the way a Japanese person's personality changes as a result of working abroad can really be a problem for them when trying to get along with other Japanese. There are aspects that can really turn off employers that we would never detect.

The main problem, and this is not a problem only in Japan, is that skill, devotion, and talent do not always factor into the rewards you receive or the jobs you secure. This happens everywhere to everyone but it happens more often to women and people without connections. It sucks but the women you worked with have a lot more choices than a foreigner in Japan. I can't imagine why they'd remain in such a job if they had the skill to secure a better-paying job.

BTW, I didn't work in the sticks either. I worked in Kichijoji and Ikebukuro Nova and then later for a company in Shinjuku.