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Tuesday, May 31, 2005

THE ZEIT GIST

New Nova hours pose health risk

Changes may leave vulnerable teachers outside insurance system


Nova Corp., Japan's largest employer of foreign nationals, is set to amend its working times from this week, a move which could see thousands of foreign teachers become ineligible for Employees Health Insurance, and save the company as much as 1 billion yen a year in the process.

Teachers representatives have slammed the moves, accusing Nova of trying to "wriggle out" of its insurance obligations and placing instructors' security at risk.

The nonenrollment of full-time workers in the Employees Health Insurance and Pension ("shakai hoken") system is illegal in Japan, where companies must enroll all employees working 75 percent of the hours of a full-timer, regardless of their nationality. The cost of the insurance premiums is shared equally between employer and employee.

Nova and other large eikaiwa in Japan have been under investigation by the Social Insurance Agency for failing to enroll full-time foreign employees.

The company is reportedly now seeking to have the Social Insurance Agency compare teacher working time with that of their bosses' to determine eligibility -- a move which could block most instructors from joining the system.

In a fax sent this month to branches on May 16 and obtained by the Japan Times, Nova states that, from June 1, all Nova lessons will be shortened to 40 minutes, with two minutes either side for lesson planning and student evaluation. Lesson time would be a total of 44 minutes with the amount of unpaid free time between classes will be extended from 10 minutes to 15 minutes.

Teachers enrolled in the shakai hoken system will be required to continue working between classes.

Under Nova's new work time system, then, regular teachers would work just under 30 hours a week, while their bosses -- so-called titled instructors -- would work on 40-hour a week contracts, thereby making teachers ineligible for shakai hoken under the 75 percent work time rule.

Nova is estimated to be saving over 1 billion yen in premium payments each year by allowing foreign employees to enroll in insurance schemes, including its own JMA plan, outside of shakai hoken.

However, those teachers outside the shakai hoken system can be vulnerable when ill or injured.

Nonenrollment in shakai hoken, makes it difficult for teachers to receive compensation when sickness forces them off work.

Although Nova teachers not covered by Employees Health Insurance can still join in the National Health Insurance System, this system does not offer coverage for time taken off work due to illness.

Under the Employees Health System, a worker who is absent from work for more than three days consecutively is entitled to 60 percent of lost wages. No such compensation applies under the National System.

Bob Tench, president of the Nova Teachers' Union, argues that Nova's attempts to "wriggle out of its obligations" under the insurance system, could leave teachers, particularly those with families, in an dangerous position should they become ill while working for the company and have to take time off work.

"Most teachers aren't even aware of their health options here, and they're unaware of the risks they're taking by not enrolling in the system," he says.

Nova representatives were not immediately available for comment on the changes or the Social Insurance Agency probe.

Employee representatives have slammed the latest moves.

"Comparing teachers' work time to that of their bosses is in clear breach of the law," says Louis Carlet, deputy general secretary of the General Workers' Union, Tokyo South.

"The law is clear," he says, "that to be eligible for shakai hoken, your hours must be 75 percent of a full-time person doing the same job as you. The bosses in these schools are clearly not doing the same job."

"Were instructors to be considered the same as their bosses, it would be a huge step backward," says Carlet. "What will happen is that enrollment will actually decrease."

Carlet believes the Social Insurance Agency is not yet fully aware of conditions at Japan's eikaiwa.

"The agency seems to believe that a full-time worker at these schools works 40 hours. This is not the case. Nova has previously recognized 28-hour a week teachers as full-time."

Dennis Tesolat, of the General Workers' Union in Osaka, says his union plans to take up the issue of eligibility and work hours with the Social Insurance Agency.

However, Noboru Sugiyama, deputy director of the Health Insurance Division of the Social Insurance Agency and head of the Nova probe, acknowledges the problems with the system but says there is no quick fix.

The complexities of the system as it stands make it too easy to exploit loopholes and avoid enrolling employees, he says, making a change in the insurance law necessary.

For this reason, he admits the investigation is likely to take some time, though it will result in a far more transparent system and make it far harder for companies like Nova to avoid enrollment.

"This investigation is a good thing not just for now but for the future," says Suigyama. "There is no solution at this stage, but we will be making the system much clearer and leaving employees, not just companies, with the necessary information."

The Social Insurance Agency will soon begin the next stage of its probe, collecting information from Nova's head office in Osaka. Sugiyama expects the information gathering to be completed by early July.

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