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Teachers pan education ministry committee's work-style reform plan as ineffective

"Hidemi Saito," a high school teacher from central Japan, is seen at a news conference he called in Tokyo on Dec. 4, 2018. (Mainichi/Takuya Izawa)

TOKYO -- While a special committee of the government's Central Council for Education proposed on Dec. 6 to cap public school teacher overtime at 45 hours per month, some teachers decried the plan's lack of specific measures to prevent going over the limit or to revise the law that states they cannot get overtime pay in principle.

In addition to the overtime limit, the preliminary guidelines on work-style reform presented by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology council also called for the introduction of a "variable working hour system." This would extend working hours during certain periods while also promoting the designation of special school closure days during long holidays when there are no classes, club activities or office duties. However, the council did not propose any punishments for violating the guidelines.

Regarding overtime pay, the council chose to recommend maintaining the payment of 4 percent of a teacher's base income as a "teaching accommodation payment" for overtime under the Act on Special Measures concerning Salaries and Other Conditions for Education Personnel of Public Compulsory Education Schools, etc.

This 4 percent figure was determined based on the results of a 1966 education ministry survey that showed public elementary and junior high school teaching staff worked an average of eight hours of overtime per month. A 2016 survey found that overtime hours had swelled to over three hours per day. The discrepancy has fed criticism that the salaries law is disconnected from the present reality.

However, some on the special committee pointed out that raising the overtime allowance percentage to reflect teachers' current overtime load would cost some 900 billion yen, and that it would be difficult to secure sufficient financial resources. The 45-hour overtime limit was made the centerpiece of the work-style reform plan instead of an overtime bonus percentage hike.

"Even if there is a cap on overtime, the mountain of work we have to do won't decrease as long as there is the education personnel salaries law and its provision about treating (working extra hours) as 'voluntary acts,'" one high school teacher from central Japan told reporters at a news conference he organized.

The man in his 30s, who went by the pseudonym "Hidemi Saito" to protect his identity, called for revision of the law and in particular the provision stating that all overtime not related to four specific activities (including accompanying students on overnight school trips) is considered "voluntary."

Saito heard as many sessions as possible of the special committee that began in July 2017 under his busy schedule. In late February this year, he launched an online petition calling for revision of the education personnel salaries law, and some 32,550 people had signed it before he submitted it to the education ministry.

However, "the voices of the people actually in schools have not been heard," Saito said of the special committee's policy recommendations. "I want them to start their deliberations over from scratch," he added.

Ryo Uchida, an associate professor at Nagoya University's Graduate School of Education and Human Development, suggested that the policy proposals would make little difference to the lives of teachers.

"As long as this system persists, in which teachers are paid zero extra no matter how much they work, and there is no legal requirement in education personnel salaries law for administrators to be aware of the need to manage overtime hours, the basic problem cannot be solved," said Uchida, who has also authored a book called "Black Bukatsudo" on the dark side of school clubs, including "free overtime" worked by supervising teachers. "I wish the committee hadn't used such vague language as 'mid- to long-term challenges' and instead had laid out a route to really resolving this issue."

There was also loud dissatisfaction with the special committee's recommendation on the "variable working hour system," including the proposal for special school closure days during long holiday periods. Under the system, local governments are supposed to adjust work hours for teachers during long holiday periods over spans of a week or month while typically setting daily time on the job at 7 hours, 45 minutes on average.

"Even during summer holiday, we have teacher training sessions and school club activities. There are no days when we don't have much work," said one Tokyo junior high school teacher in her 30s. Members of the education ministry special committee "don't seem to know anything about what actually happens in schools," she continued. The teacher added that, as her own children are in child care on weekdays, "it's a real problem if I can't leave work until late."

Some 81 percent of respondents to a Japanese Trade Union Confederation (Rengo) survey of about 1,000 teachers in September this year said that setting concrete working hours was "unrealistic."

"Today's work-hour regulation systems should be based on guaranteeing time for people to live their lives. So these proposals, which are designed entirely to suit the needs of administrators, are behind the times," commented Hosei University graduate school visiting professor and labor law specialist Katsuyoshi Tezuka. "It would be desirable to design a system that allowed teaching staff, who should be respected for their professionalism, to manage their own time and holidays. The government should consider methods to reduce work and retain enough staff to make that happen.

(Japanese original by Takuya Izawa, City News Department)

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