Although I usually refrain from making comments about issues related to law, not least of which because I’m not a lawyer, there are some questions that come up over and over, and are clearly relevant to a lot of people. Today’s issue is about what happens to your visa status, or more accurately, your Status of Residence (SOR), if you lose your job. Also, does it matter whether you were fired or left of your own free will?
My question concerns an ex-employer removing his sponsorship of my work visa [Ed: SOR]. I am an assistant English language teacher, and a few weeks ago, I received an additional three-year extension on my Instructor SOR. Then later that day, my employer, who dispatches me to classes at various schools, informed me that my newly assigned school for the year was going to be in a distant location. Since the new location was too far from classes I also teach in the city, I decided to resign from the post, offering to work the 14 days that I was legally required to provide when giving notice.
My employer was not happy about this and released me from my contract - the same contract, as it happens, that I’d just successfully used to get my extended SOR. My employer then threatened that he would contact immigration to remove the company as the sponsor of my three-year SOR, the implication being that this would weaken my ability to stay in Japan. I am now concerned. Am I in danger of being deported for breaking this contract?
I can give you my opinion as a frequent employer of non-Japanese, not as a lawyer. Thus, after reading my opinion, I strongly advise you to get professional legal advice.
From what I read in your letter, you have potentially two problems to address. The first is with immigration and how they will regard your unemployment situation. The second is whether or not your work contract can bind you to the job.
Taking the second situation first, it is true that some employers try to apply very strict clauses concerning non-competition in their employment contracts. However, unless you are in a senior management position and are clearly being rewarded for taking on this extra level of burden, generally such restrictions cannot be enforced due to the fact that the Japanese constitution guarantees you the right to work. You might be taken to court, and that is your employer’s right, but all the lawyers I have spoken to over the last few years tell me the same thing – as a regular employee, you have a right to find work in your chosen field with another employer.
Moving back to the main problem, that of immigration’s attitude toward your unemployment. Of course one cannot second-guess a government agency’s agenda nor its operating guidelines. Nonetheless, there are enough people in the same boat as you that I think it’s reasonable to say that you should be OK.
From experience, when a foreign employee has received an extension to their SOR, this means that they are eligible to work in any job in their field (as defined by the terms of the SOR) up to the limit of that extension. One of my staff just rang the Immigration Bureau to confirm this. So for you this means that you are basically able to take up to three years to look for a job. Now, I wouldn’t abuse this situation, and would start looking for a replacement job reasonably soon, because even though you may have the right to be looking for a new job, you are also obliged to support yourself. As a vagrant, you would be considered undesirable, with attendant consequences.
Lastly, another way of evaluating your situation (that of whether foreigners on work SORs are allowed to be unemployed) is to look no further than your Shakai Hoken (Japanese social insurance plan) payments to see that the government has already allowed for this contingency. As you are probably aware, one component of your Shakai Hoken is the Koyo Hoken (unemployment insurance). This is normally used by people who have been fired or made redundant, but if you have left your job voluntarily, you can still claim coverage through this insurance after three months of being out of work.
In some sectors of the economy, and especially where margins are slim and competition high, employers try various ways to keep employee turnover down. Having strict conditions in their employment contracts are one way of achieving this – by creating an atmosphere of fear. As I said, they do have the right to pursue you in court over your breaking a contract, and in such cases you may need a lawyer. You can find one through the Tokyo Bar Association, which offers low-cost legal counseling in English most weekday afternoons. For more information, visit their website at www.toben.or.jp/english/english_legal.html.