The year in labor: the Top 5 pains of 2013

By Hifumi Okunuki
Illustrations by Time O’Bree

Japan’s old calendar called December shiwasu (師走). These two kanji mean “teacher” and “run.” The idea was that the last month of the year is so busy that even a staid, starch-shirted professor finds him or herself scurrying around like a rabbit, trying to get everything done on time.

As we hurtle toward 2014, it’s time to look back on how the Year of the Snake treated labor. In keeping with the growing trend on TV, blogs and news sites, I’ve devoted this final edition of the year to a Top 5 list. The Top 5 Labor Pains of 2013 will focus on what really shook things up in terms of labor relations and employment law. In keeping with convention, I’ll count backwards.

Note: These are my personal picks and you may question my choices or believe other labor news to be more deserving of inclusion. If so, please don’t hesitate to let me know.

5. The planned ‘special dismissal zone’

As covered in my Oct. 8 column, “The Special Dismissal Zone: where legal protections no longer apply,” the Shinzo Abe government’s National Strategy Special Zone Working Group announced in May a scheme to remove all protections from abusive dismissals in a special zone, in the hope of creating “the most business-friendly environment in the world.” “Business-friendly” here means “free to dismiss at will.” This “dismissal at will” is known as “employment at will” in the U.S.

The media jumped on the plan, calling the proposed area a “dismissal zone,” to which academic Tatsuo Hatta, the head of the working group, retorted, “It’s a job creation zone, not a dismissal zone.”

What kind of jobs do these planners intend to create for us? Since firms are free to employ and un-employ workers at will, these workers will in effect become interchangeable parts in the corporate machine. For every job created, employers can cherry-pick which workers to let go, leading to massive turnover and great social instability.

The plan raised such an uproar that it has been put off for now. But proponents will not roll over so easily. When the winds are right, they are sure to give it another shot.

4. Rin Danda, labor standards inspector

I cannot overemphasize the significance of the fact that a labor standards inspector was made the protagonist of a TV series.

I had already read the comic book “Dandarin,” which follows the adventures of plucky Rin Danda, and was concerned that something might be lost in translation en route to TV. I have been reassured by the first series, which ended Wednesday. It is obvious that producers have researched the Labor Standards Bureau properly and have carefully avoided making the script preachy.

Ratings have been poor, but the series has gone a long way toward conveying the reality facing the modern worker in Japan.

3. The Fukushima far-more-than-50

Do you remember the “Fukushima 50″? They were the workers who struggled frantically to regain control over the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant just after the triple meltdown caused by the March 11, 2011, Great East Japan Earthquake and ensuing tsunami. The domestic and foreign media heaped accolades upon them, suggesting they were heroes burning with a sense of mission who demonstrated remarkable courage in fulfilling their duties with scant regard for their own lives.

More than 2½ years have passed, yet the government and society have nearly forgotten those who still toil day and night at the plant. If they were to drop their tools for even a night, the resulting contamination could leave our country uninhabitable. And it isn’t just 50 of them anymore — let’s recognize the thousands of heroes who have worked, still work and will work at the Fukushima No. 1 plant to contain the contamination and protect our environment.

And what are working conditions like for these heroes? Unfortunately, many workers there are slaving under horrible sweatshop conditions. Tokyo Electric Power Co. hires layer upon layer of subcontractors, sub-subcontractors and so on, with most workers involved in the cleanup eking out a living on the very lowest tiers of this exploitation pyramid.

The biggest problem with this structure is that no one can figure out who is accountable for employment and working conditions. With little or no preparation or training, these workers are suddenly thrust into highly dangerous tasks beyond the reach of labor law but well within the reach of harmful daily doses of ionizing radiation. Even their “danger pay” is skimmed by their bosses and their bosses’ bosses.

Most workers grin and bear it without a peep of protest, fearful of losing the only job they can find. Recently, however, one worker employed by a fifth-tier subcontractor took action. He was told upon hiring that he would not have to work in dangerous conditions, yet he was assigned to increasingly high-exposure tasks, such as removing glass near one of the reactor buildings. The day after he protested that he had been promised a safe job, he was fired.

He joined a labor union, which requested collective bargaining with five companies, including Tepco itself, over demands such as reinstatement, an end to false outsourcing (gisō ukeoi) and the payment of the promised danger money. Only his direct employer — the fifth-tier subcontractor — agreed to negotiate. His union sued Tepco and the other defiant firms in the Tokyo Labor Commission for refusing to engage in collective bargaining. Tepco claimed to know nothing of the request for collective bargaining and refused to comment.

Going on three years since the accident, we still have little to show in terms of protecting the rights of nuclear power plant workers.

2. ‘Black company’ makes it into Top 10 buzzwords

The winning “Buzzwords of the Year” for 2013 in the annual contest held by publishing house Jiyukokuminsha and correspondence education provider U-Can were “Ima desho!” (Why not now!), omotenashi (hospitality),jejeje (an expression of surprise) andbaikaeshi (double payback). I won’t go into the above expressions here, but I will discuss burakku kigyō, which made the Top 10.

Literally, the term means “black company,” but it might more properly be rendered as “evil corporation.” The phrase describes firms who find profit and success by scoffing at labor laws and brutally exploiting employees, particularly young workers who do not know the law. Some companies literally work their employees to death. Or suicide.

The word went viral thanks to the efforts of Haruki Konno, the director of the labor consultancy NPO Hojin Posse.

Some have pointed out that using a term derived from the English word “black” to mean “evil” is racist toward those of African descent. There are many words in Japanese that seem to associate “black” with negative things:kuroboshi (defeat), haraguroi hito (mean person) and kuro (guilty), to name but a few. There are also exceptions: kurooto (professional) andkuroji (profitable), for example.

For better or worse, burakku kigyō has seeped deep into the language this year and has raised awareness of the existence of some very bad companies. While this is certainly a social problem, it’s also true that it’s up to workers to stand up for themselves and join forces with their colleagues to improve their conditions.

1. Clock starts on the ‘five-year rule’

I had difficulty deciding which Labor Pain to pick for the No. 1 spot this year. In the end, I decided that the “five-year rule” may end up having the greatest impact on workers — for good or ill, it remains unclear. For my part, I cannot help being pessimistic about this change to the Labor Contract Law.

About 26 percent of workers in Japan are on fixed-term contracts. The risk of nonrenewal hangs over their heads each time their contract concludes. It is much easier to fire such workers than those with ordinary permanent contracts. Many companies hire workers on these temporary contracts even though the work is anything but. This “permatemp” status continues year after year and renewal after renewal.

The purported objective of the new rule is to increase job security for the millions on such contracts by letting them attain permanent status after five years. Many employers, however, have decided to go 180 degrees against the spirit of the law and are already planning to let workers go before they reach the five-year milestone, thus making their jobs even less secure.

A small minority of employers are bucking this trend and moving actively to let their workers attain permanent employment status. But even this year — the first year of the five-year “clock” — we see want-ads flooding job sites advertising positions with five-year ceilings.

More frightening still, while employers seem to know enough about the law to evade it, a September study by Japan’s largest union federation, Rengo, indicated that 88 percent of workers on fixed-term contracts were unaware of the nature of the change to the Labor Contract Law. That has to change. We need to know the law in order to use it.

I want to thank all my readers for taking the time to read this year’s 12 Labor Pains. Next year, I plan to take the column in an all-new, more fun direction. Have a good New Year’s and see you in the Year of the Horse.

Hifumi Okunuki teaches at Sagami Women’s University and serves as executive president of Tozen Union (Zenkoku Ippan Tokyo General Union). She can be reached at tozen.okunuki@gmail.com. On the second Thursday of each month, Hifumi looks at cases in Japan’s legal history to illustrate important principles in labor law. Send your comments and story ideas to community@japantimes.co.jp.

http://www.japantimes.co.jp/community/2013/12/11/general/the-year-in-labor-the-top-5-pains-of-2013/

Real ‘labor cops’ also deserve to get the star treatment

By Hifumi Okunuki

Television meant little to me until this autumn. Now, every Wednesday at 10 p.m., I sit squarely in front of the tube, glued to the set for the next hour of the new comedy “Dandarin.”

In the show, Yuko Takeuchi plays a stubborn, by-the-book labor standards inspector named Rin Danda who loathes letting even the slightest infraction slide, making for some awkward, tense moments when she comes up against her more see-no-evil, hear-no-evil coworkers. Perhaps not surprisingly, never before has a TV show starred a labor standards inspector; before this series went on air, most people probably had no idea what they do.

Takeuchi told a magazine, “I never even knew the job of labor standards inspector existed until I got this role.” It’s not that the actress knows less than the average citizen; it’s that the job was nearly invisible and played no role in the quotidian lives of most people.

That said, recent high-profile cases of restructuring layoffs, unfair dismissals, long work hours, karōshi (death from overwork), karō jisatsu (overwork-induced suicides), incidents of sexual and power harassment, workplace bullying and other sometimes-life-or-death issues (the list goes on and on) suggest it was high time to shine a light on this invaluable profession. TV has regained meaning in my life — and, I hope, in the lives of others.

Tackling such a serious, inherently boring topic and attempting to turn it into a bundle of laughs for TV must have been quite a challenge — and a risk — for the producers. They have done all that and more. The show says a great deal about Japanese office politics and corporate practices that are long overdue some serious scrutiny.

Today some 52 million workers toil at about 4.3 million workplaces in Japan. First and foremost, labor standards inspectors are responsible for all these workers’ lives, safety and health. On top of that, they are supposed to ensure that working conditions comply with all relevant labor laws and regulations. They must pass a civil servants’ exam before being placed at one of the many labor standards inspection offices dotted around the country.

Inspectors have the right to regularly conduct compulsory spot raids on companies to investigate their records. They also have judicial police powers to seize assets to cover unpaid wages and even to arrest violators. They are often called “labor cops,” which would seem to be a pretty fair description.

With all these powers at the disposal of labor inspectors, you could be forgiven for imagining Japan must be a workers’ paradise where employee protections are universally respected. The sad fact, however, is that Japan is awash with rogue bosses who think of nothing but their bottom lines and how they can squeeze every last ounce of production from their workers. Ironically, the extraordinary enforcement powers inspectors have are precisely what makes them hesitant to act.

There is even a jargon term for useless inspectors who make their rounds to each company, take a quick glance around the workplace and leave: kyoro-kan. The word kyoro means to glance around, while kan means inspector. I wouldn’t dream of suggesting that all inspectors are kyoro-kan, but I have encountered several unmotivated inspectors in the past who did their best to discourage, dishearten and dissuade workers who had mustered the courage to blow the whistle on their bosses.

However, the biggest problem is systemic rather than personal. First, there are far too few inspectors. Tokyo Shimbun’s evening edition on Nov. 11, 2012, ran the headline “Tokyo’s 23 wards have one inspector for every 3,000 workplaces.” Such a ratio precludes thorough enforcement. Yet the government is pushing for further cuts and reduced hiring. Even the passionate few inspectors must feel powerless when faced with such daunting numbers. To do their job properly, they would have to — no irony intended — work themselves to death.

Here, I’d like to introduce an ongoing court case brought on Feb. 22, 2011, by the family of a 24-year-old man who killed himself due to working excessive overtime. He joined construction company Shinko Plantech in 2007 and supervised repair construction.

Working more than 40 hours a week of overtime violates the Labor Standards Law unless management has signed an Article 36 agreement (saburoku kyōtei) with a union or employee representing a majority of the workforce. Employers must register such agreements with their local labor standards inspection office (rōdō kijun kantokusho).

Guidelines limit overtime hours to 45 per month with exceptions, including construction. Shinko Plantech signed a saburoku kyōtei with the union for 200 extra hours per month. The worker could not handle the stress and killed himself a few months after hitting 218 hours of overtime work per month.

The family didn’t just sue the company; they also sued the labor standards inspection office for accepting such an outrageous saburoku kyōtei agreement — and even the labor union for signing it. It is the first lawsuit against a labor union for a karō jisatsu. The plaintiffs are asking for ¥130 million in damages, and the district court verdict is expected any day now.

In terms of overtime hours, the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare has drawn a line beyond which they believe workers face a high danger of death from overwork. That line is 80 hours for two to six months straight, or 100 hours for even one month. Shinko Plantech blew that number out of the water with their deal capping overtime at 200 hours per month — and they didn’t even comply with that number. The labor union then signed this deal — a pact that would make even yellow unions blush.

So what’s to be done? I think we need to get back to basics. We must never allow workers to work themselves into an early grave. Period. Let’s learn from Rin Danda, who unflinchingly and unapologetically squares off against scofflaw employers in the name of her prime directive: protecting workers. Even when her coworkers make fun of her dedication, she retorts, “I’m just doing my job.”

Yes, indeed, the job of a labor standards inspector is to protect the lives of workers. With that in mind, the central government must hire more inspectors so that they can take heart from the example of Rin Danda and pride in protecting Japan’s 52 million workers.

See Philip Brasor’s Oct. 20 Media Mix column, “Imagining civil servants who actually serve,” for more on “Dandarin.”
Hifumi Okunuki teaches at Sagami Women’s University and serves as the executive president of Tozen Union (Zenkoku Ippan Tokyo General Union). She can be reached attozen.okunuki@gmail.com. On the second Thursday of the month, Hifumi looks at cases in Japan’s legal history to illustrate important principles in labor law. Send your comments and story ideas to community@japantimes.co.jp.

http://www.japantimes.co.jp/community/2013/11/13/issues/real-labor-cops-also-deserve-to-get-the-star-treatment/#.Urvog3m1lZg

The Special Dismissal Zone: where legal protections no longer apply

Strange bedfellows: Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto (right) chats to fellow co-leader of the Japan Restoration Party Shintaro Ishihara in Tokyo in June. Hashimoto announced last month that Osaka Prefecture and city will jointly submit a proposal to the Cabinet Office to set up a Special Challenge Zone where some labor protections would be relaxed or waived.
Strange bedfellows: Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto (right) chats to fellow co-leader of the Japan Restoration Party Shintaro Ishihara in Tokyo in June. Hashimoto announced last month that Osaka Prefecture and city will jointly submit a proposal to the Cabinet Office to set up a Special Challenge Zone where some labor protections would be relaxed or waived.

I couldn’t believe my ears when I heard about the government’s recent proposal to set up a Special Dismissal Zone on Japanese territory. “A what?” I hear you cry.

The Shinzo Abe government wants to make Japan “the most business-friendly climate in the world.” In May, he set up a National Strategy Special Zone Working Group, made proposals to local governments and corporations, and announced that special zones, or tokku, for health care, agriculture, education and other areas will be established.

The plan is to be submitted to an extraordinary session of the Diet in autumn as the Industrial Competitiveness Strengthening Bill. Most controversially, a so-called Special Employment Zone is among the options being considered, an idea that has already been dubbed the Special Dismissal Zone, or kaiko tokku, by the media.

Currently, throughout Japan, employers must overcome several high hurdles before they can dismiss an employee legally. In short, you can’t fire someone without a damn good reason.

The thinking for the Special Dismissal Zone, however, is that rules about sackings would be relaxed roughly to the point of “employment at will,” as is practiced in some parts of the United States. Within the zone, the idea is that if the worker and employer agree ahead of time on what behavior warrants dismissal, then such a dismissal under those circumstances will always be permitted, regardless of bothersome legal protections outside the zone. For instance, if employer and employee agree that the worker can be dismissed for turning up late once, then the employer can legally sack that worker when he clocks in at 9:30 for the very first time.

A second special feature of this zone would be that work hours would not be restricted for employees earning above a certain salary — currently set at about ¥8 million a year. That means employers could theoretically make their employees work all night and not pay them a single yen for the overtime. Such a high salary is safely beyond the grasp of most of us working stiffs, but keep an eye out for that falling floor — and watch out as that zone spreads.

A third sweetener for these business oases: The “five-year rule” wouldn’t apply if foreign workers make up more than 30 percent of an employer’s work force. This rule refers to the change to the Labor Contract Law (Article 18) that gives workers the chance to win permanent status if they stay with an employer for more than five years. I spoke about the problems emerging with this legal change in March (“Labor law reform raises rather than relieves workers’ worries,” March 19). Whatever the shortcomings of this reform, the special zone would suspend this protection to all company employees if a firm’s gaijinquota tops 3 out of 10.

Responding to the announcement of the kaiko tokku plan, Osaka’s firebrand mayor, Toru Hashimoto, on Sept. 11 announced that Osaka Prefecture and Osaka city will jointly submit a proposal to the Cabinet Office to set up a zone that would encourage performance-based wages, to be called the Special Challenge Zone. This zone would include Osaka’s economic heart, the Midosuji area. Companies paying above a certain wage would enjoy relaxed work-hour restrictions and the right to fire at will.

Osaka prefectural Gov. Ichiro Matsui stressed that the zone would only affect elite workers. “This is for highly skilled professionals, not for low-income workers,” he said. “This enables mismatches between employer and employee to be rectified by moving around high-income, highly skilled, self-confident workers. This is not for workers barely making ends meet.”

For workers, these plans come as a bolt out of the blue. What is going on here? Well, according to the government, clarifying dismissal rules will boost the development of new industries and attract start-up and foreign firms, creating a healthy investment climate in Japan for the world’s corporations.

Many business and political leaders whinge about how hard it is to fire someone in Japan. “It is harder to dismiss a worker in Japan than in any other country in the world,” they whine. “Japan is going to be left behind.” Is that really the case?

Article 16 of the Labor Contract Law states: “A dismissal is invalid and the right to dismiss has been abused when it lacks objective, rational grounds and cannot be deemed reasonable according to social norms.” I took this up in my February 2012 column (“Oversleeping radio anchor set tough precedent for firing staff,” Feb. 28, 2012).

In Japan, case law often leads to laws being rewritten. The wording of Article 16 has its origins in a Supreme Court case brought against Nippon Salt Manufacturing in 1975. The gist of the ruling was that employers cannot fire workers whenever they please. Since workers earn wages that form the basis for their livelihood and enable them to raise families, unchecked dismissals could lead to the breakdown of the family unit and cause instability even within society as a whole. Wages are the basis of workers’ livelihoods, so sackings should be avoided — that was the thinking behind this legal principle of kaikoken ranyō hōri, or abuse of the right to dismiss.

Business leaders and some politicians counter that the principle has left Japanese workers overprotected, and that it damages Japan’s competitive edge in the world. I must disagree strongly. Establishing the principle that you cannot dismiss a worker without good reason stabilizes industrial relations, places limits on the exercise of runaway, arbitrary power by employers, and helps preserve social harmony.

During Japan’s period of dramatic postwar economic growth, companies rallied under the slogans of “lifetime employment” and “your company is your family.” Jobs were far more secure back then. Granted, the slave-like treatment of workers during that time tarnishes the sheen of job security, but at least workers were not treated as disposable objects, to be used then tossed away like garbage.

The government and business community are swearing up and down that the new zones will only apply to elite, high-income workers. But I have no doubt that if we deregulate dismissal in these zones, the deregulation will break out into the wider world. This in turn will encourage workers to see each other as rivals rather than comrades, enemies rather than allies. When that day comes, who will be laughing from their high perch? The answer is too obvious to state.

More than 35 percent of workers in Japan are in irregular or contingent employment. Income is declining while the number of work hours and the number of workers not enrolled in the shakai hoken health and pension scheme continue to rise.

As Japan ages, more and more workers must provide nursing care to parents on top of tough, long-hour jobs. More employees are taking time off work, resigning or even killing themselves due to depression, which is now considered by some to be the national disease.

The last thing Japan needs is a Special Dismissal Zone to make workers more miserable than ever.

“Taking back Japan” is one of the Abe government’s favorite catchphrases. Around town, you see this phrase in bold letters splashed across huge posters depicting the prime minister gazing into the distance, the Hinomaru flag fluttering in the background. But I cannot see where Abe’s eyes are looking. From and to where does he want to “take Japan back”?

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Hifumi Okunuki teaches at Sagami Women’s University and serves as the executive president of Tozen Union (Zenkoku Ippan Tokyo General Union). She can be reached at tozen.okunuki@gmail.com. On the third Tuesday of the month, Hifumi looks at cases in Japan’s legal history to illustrate important principles in labor law.

This article originally published in the Japan Times at:
http://www.japantimes.co.jp/community/2013/10/07/how-tos/the-special-dismissal-zone-where-legal-protections-no-longer-apply/#.UlZp5hYijHg

Union, business concerns put limits on freedom of speech by Hifumi Okunuki

Hot on the heels of their romp to victory in the race for control of the House of Councilors, the Liberal Democratic Party is chomping at the bit to overhaul the Constitution, which has not been amended since it was signed into law in 1946. The ruling party proposes gutting Article 9, which forever bans war, and laying the legal groundwork for an official national military.

Today I won’t address this folly; rather, I’d like to discuss the tension between employees’ danketsuken (right to solidarity) and employers’ right to free speech under the as-yet-untweaked Constitution.

Article 21 guarantees without condition all freedom of “assembly, association, speech and publication.” All these freedoms apply to employers as well as employees.

Article 28 guarantees danketsuken: “The right of workers to come together in solidarity and to bargain and act collectively is guaranteed.” Together these are known as the three labor rights (rōdō sanken): danketsuken, dantaikōshōken and dantaikōdōken — the right to solidarity, to collective bargaining and to strike.

The Trade Union Law was built on the foundation that is Article 28. That law’s Article 7.3 prohibits interference (shihai kainyū) in the operation of a union by management. What this means in practice is that management’s freedom of speech is restricted to the extent that it interferes in the running of a union.

So when does an employer’s speech constitute illegal interference?

The most famous case to address the tension between an employer’s freedom of speech and the prohibition on union interference is the Prima Meat Packers case. The company had a closed shop, meaning membership in the union was a condition of employment and leaving or being expelled from the union meant automatic dismissal from the firm.

The union had bargained collectively several times over a wage demand during the spring labor offensive known as shuntō. After rejecting management’s latest offer, the union declared that talks had broken down.

The company president responded by sending the following memo to all employees:”It is unclear how union executives assess the company’s sincerity, but the union has announced the breakdown of talks. I believe this indicates an imminent strike. To me this seems like nothing more than striking for the sake of striking. This is quite regrettable. It is absolutely impossible for the company to raise its offer, so we are now have no choice but to take a drastic measure. I urge that both sides act in moderation.”

This document caused quite a kerfuffle in the union, with many members getting cold feet about striking. In the end nearly 200 members crossed the picket line.

The union sued for redress in the Tokyo Labor Commission, claiming the president’s message constituted interference in the union, discouraging members from striking and thereby violating Article 7.3 of the Trade Union Law. Both the Tokyo commission and then the National Labor Commission ruled in the union’s favor. The company dragged the case to court, but both the district and high courts upheld the Tokyo commission’s ruling.

Undeterred, management appealed to the Supreme Court. On Sept. 10, 1982, this fifth adjudicating body upheld all four lower rulings, handing workers a powerful judicial precedent.

The court’s reasons (ruling in italics):

1. While employers’ right to free speech is indeed protected by Article 21 of the Constitution, that right must be restricted by the prohibition on violating the danketsuken (right to solidarity) protected in Article 28.

The “right to solidarity” might sound strange to those who grew up in other countries, since it seems to imply a right to a feeling. In Japan, however, danketsuken is inviolable and trumps even free speech.

2. The content, method and timing of speech, the position and rank of the speaker, and the impact of the speech on union members, union organization or operation, when all considered together, determine that interference (shihai kainyū) has occurred.

The courts here again give themselves extraordinary latitude in deciding what is against the law, indicating that each case must be considered separately by each court.

3. Although the document was addressed to “employees,” it was effectively addressed to “all union members” since the company had a closed-shop agreement with the union. By criticizing the union leadership, there was a danger that the letter could drive a wedge between the executive and rank-and-file membership. The “drastic measure” had a menacing quality toward the union members. The call to “act in moderation” discouraged members from striking.

The court concluded that the document interfered with the independent operation of the union, including the decision to strike. (If I were of the management persuasion, I’d commend their persistence in appealing the first labor commission decision — no less than four times!) Ever since, the courts have consistently ruled that free speech does not extend to union interference.

Now let’s take a look at the other side of the coin.

The Supreme Court ruled on Dec. 20, 1983, in favor of a manager at Shinjuku Post Office who, at his own private home, spoke with employees and criticized the existing union’s militancy, while encouraging the employees to join a second union that was about to be formed. The court said, “The action might not have been fair, but it does not constitute union interference.”

On Dec. 21, 1970, Tokyo District Court likewise defended Oita Bank’s right to publish an internal newsletter describing the bank’s wage policies right in the middle of wage talks. The court said the bank was merely stating its opinion and was in no way committing shihai kainyū.

In the U.S., the right to free speech, protected by the First Amendment of that country’s Constitution, trumps both union and business rights. Thus, Target and other retailers are permitted to show their workers slick, professionally made infomercials with good-looking actors warning about how much unions will hurt workers (Google “Target’s Anti-Union Propaganda Video” and check it out). U.S. businesses openly hire anti-union consultants to bad-mouth unions to their hearts’ content, as long as they don’t engage in quid pro quo threats or promises tied to union membership.

In Japan, the situation is the reverse: Union and business rights both trump freedom of speech. This means that certain things management might say about a union at the workplace are illegal because they might discourage workers from joining or encourage them to leave the union, discourage them from striking or encourage them to scab, etc. The aforementioned Target video would be flagrantly illegal in Japan.

The labor laws in each country reflect their different histories, structure, ideology and social norms. I will leave you to decide which system is fairer, but I would suggest that management has overwhelmingly more intrinsic financial, positional and propaganda power than the average labor union.

I would be interested to know to what extent our readers think that freedom of speech should be protected. Should it trump union rights?

Precedent backs (nearly) equal pay for equal work

In 2012, Japan had 51.73 million workers, of which 33.3 million were regular employees, or seishain, according to the latest survey by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications. Contingent, or nonpermanent, workers (including part-timers, haken dispatch and shokutaku semiregular employees) numbered 18.43 million, over 35.5 percent of the workforce.

When I first began studying labor law in graduate school over a decade ago, contingent workers (hiseiki rōdōsha) were a peripheral phenomenon, but today they form a central pillar of Japan’s workforce.

So what’s wrong with being a contingent worker?

First of all, most have temporary or fixed-term contracts, which translates into roughly zero job security. Despite it being mandatory, many employers fail to enroll their contingent employees in Japan’s shakai hoken health and pension scheme. This raises anxiety among workers about what will happen when they get ill or old.

The biggest problem, however, is wage differences between nonpermanent and seishain employees. For example, these days we see ever more supermarkets and food companies employing low-wage shop managers, posts that were once held exclusively by seishain. They make, say, ¥900 an hour with no bonus and no severance pay. Their responsibilities and hard work are on par with those of the seishain they work with, but there the parity ends. Today, contingent workers make Japan’s industrial world go round.

But is this situation fair or even sustainable?

Labor law says little about discrepancies between the conditions of seishain and contingent workers. Article 3 of the Labor Standards Law prohibits discrimination based on “social standing,” but courts have already interpreted this phrase to exclude employment status. Article 8 of the Part-time Worker Labor Law, enacted in 1993, prohibits discrimination, but “part-timers” affected by the law are limited to those who have open-ended employment, do the same jobs as seishain and are dealt with the same manner as ordinary workers. (Pāto in Japanese has a far broader meaning than “part-time” in English and often includes full-time temporary or other contingent employment.) Few if any part-time workers satisfy such conditions, making the law little more than e ni kaita mochi, or “rice cakes in a painting,” as the saying goes. (In other words, like “pies in the sky,” you can’t eat ‘em.)

The most famous legal challenge to disparities between the two types of workers came in the mid-1990s. Twenty-eight women working on recurring two-month contracts for an auto parts company mustered their courage, unionized and challenged their wage disparity with their seishain colleagues in Nagano District Court. Despite flimsy legal grounding, they asked the court to order the employer, Maruko Keihoki Co., to pay wages lost due to pay that was far less than their seishain coworkers, despite the fact they worked the same production line, did the same job and clocked in on the same hours and days.

Seishain regular workers were paid a basic monthly wage that increased in line with seniority, while the “two-monthers” received daily wages amounting to 60 percent of the average of their seishain coworkers. The plaintiffs asserted that getting lower pay for the same work violated the principle articulated in Article 90 of the Civil Code called kōjo ryōzoku, or public order and morality.

Leading labor law scholars sounded off against the claim, saying Japan has no legal principle of equal pay for equal work and that the court should refuse redress. The claimants’ chances looked dim.

On March 15, 1996, however, the gods smiled down on the Maruko Keihoki 28, with the court ruling that “although equal pay for equal work cannot be considered itself a requirement of public order and morality, the principle is reflected in the two pay-parity provisions (Articles 3 and 4) of the Labor Standards Law and should be a universal value of a society that treats all as equal under the law. Any wage disparity that violates this principle goes beyond the legitimate discretion of the employer and therefore violates public order and morality.”

The judge then ruled that any wages falling below 80 percent of the equivalent for seishain must be repaid to the plaintiffs. This arbitrary threshold baffled commentators, as the court was in effect saying wage disparity is wrong on the one hand, but that 20 percent was fine and dandy.

Maruko Keihoki appealed and the parties settled in what is rightly considered a complete victory for the plaintiffs. The deal included a change from daily to monthly wages, repayment of the disparity in wages, summer and winter bonuses equal to those of seishain staff, and identical severance packages upon leaving the company.

This was the first ruling to recognize wage disparity between the two types of workers as a violation of public order and morality, or kōjo ryōzoku. Despite the mixed message, it is hard to overestimate the impact this verdict has had on later rulings.

The plaintiffs had no specialized labor law knowledge and they fought while caring for their families. Their unifying gripe was the injustice of doing the same work and hours for two-thirds of the pay of their colleagues. Their simple rejection of this indignity inspired them to fight on.

An uplifting addendum to this anecdote is that the seishain at Maruko Keihoki fought arm in arm with the plaintiffs. One regular worker said: “We were astonished when we heard the wages of these women who work right next to us. We thought it was unacceptable and that we had to fight alongside them to rectify it.”

This labor union brought together regular and irregular staff in the fight for equal pay. Lest we forget, this landmark victory was born of worker solidarity that transcended employment status.

by Hifumi Okunuki

http://www.japantimes.co.jp/community/2013/05/21/issues/precedent-backs-nearly-equal-pay-for-equal-work/#.UZ2p4r-ElZI

Employers’ ‘box them in, drive them out’ tactics fail legal test

Surely few employees would jump out of bed every morning, itching to start work at the “Department for Driving Them Out”? But what is an oidashi-beya? And what scary entities are to be driven out?

The answer is neither ghosts nor zombies. It is you. Some companies have been known to set up departments dubbed by critics as oidashi-beya to make their employees feel so unwelcome that they quit voluntarily, thus saving the company the hassle and messy legal responsibilities associated with dismissal.

One such company is a major player in education and publishing, Benesse Corp. Its name is a portmanteau of the Latin adverb for “well” (bene) and the present infinitive of the copula “to be” (esse), and its corporate philosophy stresses the idea of “wellbeing,” including “teamwork, people development, fairness and active participation in the workplace.” Benesse uses the kanji 財 instead of 材 (both read zai) in the name of its human resources department (jinzaibu), suggesting it sees its workers as part of the company “treasure” rather than just “material.” Yet this company, which purports to pride itself on benevolence, apparently had no qualms about trampling over at least one long-serving employee, treasure or not.

Benesse found itself in court recently in a challenge to the legality of its oidashi-beya. The defendant started working for the company’s predecessor, Fukutake Shoten, as a part-timer in the late 1970s. In the early 1990s she became a seishain regular employee. In the mid-noughts, she was seconded to and named section leader at subsidiary Benesse Business-mate, Inc. to help promote the employment of those with disabilities.

One day in 2009, an HR manager dropped by her workplace and asked if she would like to extend the period of assignment or return to HQ. The plaintiff chose the latter but received no further contact. When she asked about her status, she was told that cutbacks had eliminated her position and there was no place for her to return to. After refusing an offer of a transfer from Tokyo to a remote post in Shikoku, she was told she would join seven others in the Annex to the HR Department, a section she would later learn was Benesse’s oidashi-beya.

The eight were told: “You are problematic. Please take two or three months to ascertain your strengths and weaknesses so that you can challenge yourselves anew.”

But the plaintiff had never been told she was problematic. She had never dreamed she would start in her new office with this type of sendoff, and understandably, it made her extremely anxious.

Her anxiety turned out to be well-founded. She was ordered not to answer the phone, not to carry a business card and to look for a division within the company that would accept her. Her annual pay was cut by ¥2 million. Her department name was changed to the Operations Support Center, although nothing really changed. She found herself left off the guest list for company celebration and farewell parties and was denied access to the company’s intranet.

Tasks assigned to her and others in the department included topping up supplies, making photocopies, cleaning up cardboard boxes in the company library and checking for missing tiles and dirty spots on the ceiling in the offices on each floor.

This employee had served the company for decades, yet now found herself robbed of her pride and falling deeper and deeper into irrelevance. The department had been set up to make her and others feel so miserable that they would resign of their own accord.

The plaintiff decided she had had enough. But rather than quitting, she sued Benesse. She claimed that the “existence of the Annex to the HR Department itself was illegal as its real purpose was to apply extreme pressure on employees to resign, and that the order to transfer to that department was thus invalid.” Benesse denied all her claims.

The Tokyo District Court’s Tachikawa Branch ruled in favor of the plaintiff on Aug. 29 last year. “The Annex to the HR Department was likely set up to encourage resignation and is undeniably an illegal system,” the court said. The ruling also invalidated the ¥2 million reduction in annual pay, saying the cut “exceeded acceptable bounds of discretionary authority.” The company appealed but in the end settled with the plaintiff on undisclosed terms.

The Benesse case reminded me of the zashikirō (tatami jail) case of 14 years ago. Game developer Sega Enterprises set up what it called a “personal room” for one of its workers. He was assigned to no particular department and set no specific tasks, and was later pressured to resign because of “poor performance.” The “personal room” was dark and windowless with two desks, three or four chairs and a phone with no outside line, leading people to call it the zashikirō, after the rooms used to hold criminals and lunatics in the Edo Period.

In the end, the company fired him, citing its shugyō kisoku work rules, which stipulated that dismissal was acceptable if “work performance is inferior and shows no sign of improvement.” The worker sued to reverse the dismissal. Tokyo District Court overturned the dismissal on Oct. 15, 1999, ruling that the reason cited was insufficient since it could mean simply below the average for the company workforce. The court also said the company failed to take measures to improve the worker’s skills.

The only way for workers to fight these companies — which can appear scarier than ghosts or zombies — is to take a clear, courageous fighting stance. What companies fear more than anything else is solidarity among their workers.

If you are suffering at work, find coworkers you can talk openly with. If one of your colleagues is being harassed, speak up and get him/her to confide in you. When workers cooperate to improve their lot instead of competing with one another, the challenge of driving out the demon of corporate bullying can look a lot less frightening.

By Hifumi Okunuki

http://www.japantimes.co.jp/community/2013/04/16/how-tos/employers-box-them-in-drive-them-out-tactics-fail-legal-test/#.UZ2p4b-ElZI

Labor law reform raises rather than relieves workers’ worries

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Story originally published in Japan Times

A new specter hangs over Japan: the specter of insecure employment. The source of this insecurity is the August 2012 reform of the Labor Contract Act related to fixed-term employment. Due to take effect April 1, the thrust of the reform is as follows:

1. Workers employed on fixed-term contracts for five years must be granted open-ended employment if they apply for it (Article 18).

2. Establishes clear legal parameters for refusing contract renewal, or yatoidome. (Article 19). (Note: This has already gone into effect.)

3. Prohibits groundless linking of fixed-term employment to unfair working terms (Article 20).

Workers with open-ended (kikan no sadame no nai koyō) and fixed-term employment (yūki koyō) face disparities that don’t logically follow from the simple fact that open-ended employment has no end date. The first is pay. Employers tend to pay their yūki koyō workers a good deal less than their permanent workers. Fixed-term workers tend to be given less professional responsibility, fewer or no promotions, and less or zero pay hikes, bonuses and severance pay.

Japan’s largest retailer reportedly pays winter bonuses of between ¥400,000 and ¥500,000 to many of its permanent staff, and ¥20,000 to fixed-term employees doing the same work. On top of that, fixed-term workers face layoff anxiety each time their contracts come up for renewal, effectively meaning it’s impossible for them to make any long-term plans in their lives.

The original purpose of yūki koyō was presumably to enable employers to find workers to complete work projects that themselves were of fixed duration. In that way, the term of the contract would reflect the time-fixed nature of the work itself.

Yet companies routinely use temporary contracts for work that continues far beyond the end date. They do this to slash labor costs and to shirk all social and economic responsibility for their employees — a responsibility that firms are expected to take seriously in Japan.

Last August’s reform purports to “relieve the nonrenewal anxiety of workers on fixed-term contracts, rectify unfair working conditions justified by the fixed-term relationship, and to realize a society where workers can keep working without anxiety.”

However, even before it kicks in, many employers are bludgeoning the spirit of the reform. Far from increasing job security, companies are scrambling to set up mechanisms to kick out their workers before five years elapses. Employers are citing the new law to justify three-year limits on renewals, and even no renewals at all.

Gone are the days when employers equated “human resources” with “human treasure,” punning on the word jinzai — the days when treating workers with dignity and respect was the secret of corporate success. Overseas commentators once heaped praise on the three sacred treasures that sustained postwar Japan’s rapid economic growth: lifetime employment, seniority pay and company unions (see Ezra F. Vogel’s 1979 book “Japan as No. 1″).

Japanese workers were often disparaged abroad as “economic animals.” But the trade-off was that in exchange for bearing long working hours and the arbitrary dictates of the employer, and with the support of the “three treasures,” the fanatical salaryman could count on “secure, permanent employment.”

Those days are gone. As of March 1, the ranks of fixed-term workers stood at 14.1 million, or more than 25 percent of Japan’s total workforce of 54.52 million, according to a Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications study. With 1 in 4 workers on a fixed-term contract, such a basic desire as job security is edging out of reach, and workers are more atomized than ever. This does not bode well.

And that’s not all. In addition to job security, the principle of equality between worker and employer, a founding principle of Japanese labor law, has been reduced to a husk of its former self. Imagine the effect nonrenewal anxiety hanging over the heads of workers must have on their workplace behavior and relationship with management. They will have to put a great deal of effort into making sure they stay on their boss’s good side.

This state of affairs naturally casts a dark shadow over union activism. Can workers in fear for their jobs band together and raise their voices to assert their rights? Some may have the courage, but many others will take the safe, silent route.

So on top of everything else, this legislation will have a chilling effect on union activism among those on fixed-term contracts. One unionized company has even resorted to putting all new hires onto six-month contracts with no renewal whatsoever. The purpose is to prevent further unionization from gaining a foothold.

Those who will work only six months at a company are unlikely to join a union and fight for better conditions. So the employer now simply sits back and waits for existing members to fall away due to natural attrition. Few drafters of this reform considered the potential abuse of fixed-term employment for the purpose of union-busting.

Having read this far, you will be forgiven for thinking that yūki koyō has no up-side. However, looking at the glass half-full, if you somehow make it to the five-year mark, you will find yourself in a tenured position, unable to be dismissed without legitimate reasons according to the law and social norms. For the employer, this amounts to a loathsome shackle that prevents easy layoffs.

The new law also makes nonrenewal — yatoidome — illegal if there is good reason to expect renewal. What constitutes “good reason” belongs to the notorious gray zone of Japanese law, meaning different judges will rule differently. The law also prohibits unreasonably low working conditions for fixed-term employees compared with regular employees. Again, “unreasonable” remains undefined.

At the end of the day, I believe the reform is irredeemable. To really fix things, we need to prohibit fixed-term employment itself (in most cases) — what is called “regulating at the entrance.”

Let’s look at a legal case study.

The plaintiff started with a six-month contract, then a yearlong one, with publisher Akashi Shoten. Three months into the second contract, the plaintiff and 21 other employees unionized. The plaintiff became an executive of the local union.

When the next renewal period came around, Akashi Shoten management offered the plaintiff a contract with an explicit nonrenewal clause. The plaintiff tried to negotiate a renewal without the new clause, but management held firm. The plaintiff signed the contract but later sued to overturn the nonrenewal.

Tokyo District Court ruled on July 30, 2010, that the plaintiff had in effect been compelled to sign the contract with the nonrenewal clause. The judge also ruled that the yatoidome was invalid as it lacked objective grounds according to social norms, meaning the same bar had to be used as for a dismissal of a permanent employee.

Although not taken up by the court, the publisher also discriminated against other union members and executives. Many were shocked that Akashi Shoten — this paragon in the arena of human rights, famous for protecting the weak and fighting discrimination — was in fact union-busting.

It’s important that we learn from examples of companies using fixed-term contracts to crush unions. Naturally, the best way to fight back is to unionize — and fast.

Mazda temp-staff practice ruled illegal

Mazda temp-staff practice ruled illegal
Yamaguchi court: Displaced 13 should be regular employees

http://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2013/03/14/national/mazda-temp-staff-practice-ruled-illegal/#.UVFDtL8WZZJ

YAMAGUCHI – The Yamaguchi District Court ruled Wednesday that Mazda Motor Corp.’s temp-staff employment practice is illegal and recognized regular employee status for 13 former temp-staff workers displaced by the automaker.

The rare recognition that displaced temporary workers should be regular employees is expected to affect similar pending lawsuits. The court also ordered Mazda to pay wages that the 13 should have received as regular employees.

The temp-staff worker law requires companies to directly employ workers dispatched by temporary staffing agencies if the employees continue work at the firms for three consecutive years.

Under its temp-staff employment practice, Mazda directly employed temporary workers as “support employees” for just three months after their three consecutive years of service, later shifting their status back to temps.

The practice to effectively maintain workers as temporary staff for more than three years violated the temp-staff worker law, the court said.

The ruling came in a suit filed by 15 plaintiffs — some of whom worked as temporary staff at Mazda’s Hofu plant in Yamaguchi Prefecture for up to five years and seven months before being displaced during or after the outbreak of the global financial crisis in December 2008.

The court found 13 of the 15 plaintiffs as subject to the support employee system and recognized them as regular employees.

The plaintiffs filed the lawsuit in April 2009, claiming that Mazda had been adjusting the hiring period to be less than three years by temporarily hiring temp-staff employees as regular employees for about three months under the “support employee” system.

The plaintiffs said the system allowed Mazda to “hire skilled temp workers for a long time but fire them whenever they wanted,” calling the act “loophole.”

Meanwhile, Mazda had claimed that temp workers had accepted to work as temp staff and “support employee” positions out of their own volition.

“Mazda had not intended it, and therefore, it does not violate the law,” Mazda’s lawyers said in court.

Mazda called the decision regrettable, adding that it will consider what to do after pouring over the content of the ruling.

In June 2009, the Yamaguchi and Hiroshima prefectural labor bureaus recommended that Mazda correct the “support employee” system.

Shinji Eto, 48, one of the plaintiffs who had been displaced by Mazda, told the court last April that he just wanted to live a normal life, being paid for his work and occasionally being able to go out for drinks with friends.

“I want to say with pride that producing cars at Mazda is my job,” Eto said. “I just want to live a normal life.”

Teachers are workers, not martyrs: the severance scandal that isn’t

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Saints or sinners?: Some media outlets and politicians appear to be apoplectic over the decision by some state school teachers to retire months early to safeguard potentially millions of yen in severance pay. | AP

Story originally published in Japan Times

“Teachers quitting before graduation?!” the headlines screamed as we headed into the new year.

Traditionally, Japanese teachers head into retirement after March school graduations. However, this January, many teachers left their posts ahead of time, in a wave of resignations that began in Saitama and spread across Japan.

But why?

The story begins with teachers’ severance payments — specifically, the Yoshihiko Noda Cabinet’s decision in August last year to drastically reduce them. The move by the last Democratic Party of Japan-led administration came in response to a fiscal 2010 study of public-sector pension obligations that found the average central government employee’s severance payment was ¥4 million more than that of private-sector workers.

The Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications ordered local governments to “make cuts in line with those to central government employees.” However, as the ministry did not specify when these measures were supposed to be taken, the local governments have implemented them at different, haphazard times.

The results have been chaotic. Coming back to Saitama, the local government there has decided to reduce all severance payments from February, with the difference in retirement payments for teachers before and after that time coming to roughly ¥1.4 million.

The result is — apparently unexpectedly — that of the 1,290 teachers due for retirement this year, 104 are choosing to retire in January.

The effects of this will also extend beyond teachers to police officers and other civil servants.

Here, let’s step back for a moment and think about what place teachers occupy in our society today. I can’t help but think there’s something strange going on.

Take, for example, what the new minister of education, Hakubun Shimomura, said in response to reports of early teacher retirements: “Teachers ought to put students first and stay at their posts through the end of the school year.” Or Councilor Satsuki Katayama, also of the newly elected Liberal Democratic Party, who blasted teachers in a blog posting last month: “(If highly paid local government employees had stopped these measures), the national government would have been unable to make savings of ¥10-20 billion, and local governments would be unable to make nearly ¥100 million worth of savings. . . . Have people lost all honor? Is there no goodness left in mankind?” (Note that Katayama seems to have no problem with “highly paid” public servants such as herself.)

Even at the best of times, public-servant-bashing is a popular political pastime. However, it is becoming dangerously entwined with a “myth of the teacher-martyr” — that is, the idea that teachers should spare not a thought for such worldly concerns as money, and put their school and students at the absolute front and center of their lives.

With all this, one cannot help but think that the teachers who are retiring early this year are among the most brazenly selfish human beings gracing God’s green Earth. And, by implication, that the teachers staying on must be simply wondrous.

But somehow that seems a bit much.

First, as painfully obvious as it may be, it’s worth remembering that teachers are workers. And in light of the martyrization of Japanese teachers currently going on, I wonder what impression is being pressed into the minds of today’s young Japanese.

Can it possibly be good for Japan if the first thing that tomorrow’s workers learn about adult life is that you positively should sacrifice yourself to your job? What would happen if they emerge into adult life and find themselves working under terrible conditions? Will they make use of their rights to improve things for themselves and their fellow workers? Or will they think back to their teachers and the example they set, and grin and bear whatever newer and more ridiculous abuses come their way?

Today’s teachers are burdened with myriad challenges, ranging from bullying to dealing with monster parents, from coping with students who become hikikomori (children who withdraw completely from society) to acting as guidance counselors for students facing the complexities of the modern world. Countless teachers are taking sick leave due to mental health issues, committing suicide or simply dying from overwork. And if society forces teachers to adhere to unrealistic standards of perfection, then it will leave them all the more with no alternative to these drastic measures.

To put it another way, if teachers are being forced to literally sacrifice themselves to create a fun and positive learning environment, how fun, positive or educational could that environment possibly be? If we want children to grow up to enjoy full and meaningful lives, shouldn’t the adults we pay to set them a good example themselves enjoy full and meaningful lives?

And if that’s the case, shouldn’t teachers have decent and secure working conditions (and here I’m not just talking about salaries)? “Education = sainthood = forced martyrdom” doesn’t really achieve any educational aim in any way, shape or form.

Here I want to come back to severance. A severance payment is a reward for many long years of service, so, in contrast to regular pay, you can only claim it when you retire. While there are cases when changes in management or labor-management relations can bring about changes in severance agreements, it seems only logical that promises about severance made when a work contract is signed shouldn’t be able to be changed part-way through.

In Japan, when work regulations or labor-management agreements are concluded, severance payments are treated as “deferred wages.” Because of their crucial role in providing for daily life in old age, it is completely unacceptable to allow reductions in severance to be made easily.

While it is legal to make reductions to severance during regular negotiations over wages, case law stipulates that due to the above considerations, this is allowable only in cases of “extreme need” (Omagari-shi Agricultural Cooperative Case, Supreme Court ruling, Feb. 16, 1988).

To consider some concrete examples, we could look at the famous 1983 ruling against Mikuni Hire, where the Supreme Court found that the company’s reduction in severance payments was unreasonable because it didn’t provide sufficient compensation.

In another famous ruling against Michinoku Bank in 2000, the Supreme Court found the company’s cuts to be unreasonable due to a lack of transitional measures put in place for employees and, again, insufficient compensation in exchange for the cuts.

At any rate, it seems no protest was made by unions in the face of the remarkable cuts made to teachers’ severance pay. As teachers are local government employees, they are covered by Article 52, Paragraph 1 of the Local Public Service Law. Under this law “employee organizations,” which are unions in fact if not in name, are charged with representing the interests of workers.

It is at precisely such a time that unions should be fighting tooth and nail to preserve education workers’ rights. And from there, if they can fight to preserve not only teachers’ rights, but also the rights of all their fellow workers, then that would open up the possibility of changing not just a single industry, but the whole world.

AKB48: Unionize and take back your lost love lives

http://www.japantimes.co.jp/community/2013/01/22/how-tos/akb48-unionize-and-take-back-your-lost-love-lives/#.UQ5ewt1VmjM

BY HIFUMI OKUNUKI

They started performing on stages in Tokyo’s Akihabara electronics district, and today their ubiquity is unrivaled. The current flavors of the month pepper the TV schedules and covers of weekly magazines all year round. In Tokyo, you can’t swing a carrot without hitting a giant poster of one or a bunch of the all-grinning, all-dancing “Vegetable Sisters.” AKB48 are, hands down, the busiest and most successful girl group in Japan.

They have spawned spinoffs in other cities: SKE48 from Nagoya’s Sakae district, NMB48 from Osaka’s Namba neighborhood and HKT48, from Fukuoka’s Hakata. Last year, their inspiration transcended national borders and a testy territorial dispute as the franchise set up shop in Shanghai as SNH48, hot on the heels of the group’s first foreign foray, Jakarta’s JKT48. Another offshoot, TPE48, is planned for Taipei.

The original AKB48 troupe now numbers 87 members (that’s including “trainees”), making it the largest pop group in the world. Among these teenagers and 20-somethings, cut-throat competition has arisen alongside gross disparities between the fortunes of the most popular, the less so, and those whose day on the big stage just never comes.

Their management prohibits the girls from having romantic relationships, with a contract clause stating that “Unrequited love is permissible, but you cannot return the affection.” Several members have been pushed to resign or “graduate” after photos leaked out revealing the girl was dating.

Quite recently, the much-loved Yuka Masuda announced her sudden resignation from the group after stepping over the no-love-life line. Photos splashed all over a weekly magazine suggested she had spent the night at a male celebrity’s home. Though not officially “dismissed,” it is clear that decisions in her personal life cost her her job.

Although not all scholars agree, I believe even celebrities such as AKB48 members are protected by labor standards law. This month I’d like to examine two questions: 1) Does the law permit chastity clauses? and 2) Can an employer fire someone for violating such a rule?

Labor contracts, like all contracts, are predicated on the assumption of agreement between two parties. But that does not mean that anything goes when it comes to their provisions. Four conditions must all be met to legitimize each and every term of a contract: kakuteisei (determinacy),jitsugen kanōsei (achievability), tekihōsei (legality) andshakaiteki datōsei (social justification).

It is the fourth, shakaiteki datōsei , that concerns us in the AKB48 case. This concept entails general ideals of morality and justice, specifically kōjo ryōzoku (public order and morality), a crucial and broadly ranging legal principle enshrined in Article 90 of the Civil Code.

Contract terms that violate kōjo ryōzoku are invalid. Textbook examples include: paying for a crime; terms that violate fundamental human rights, such as gender bias; terms that restrict individual freedom; and those that violate social morals such as human trafficking, prostitution or geisha provisions. While traditional geisha exist within the scope of the law, asking an employee to “entertain” a client does not.

Most would consider it an unjustifiable invasion of privacy if an ordinary company prohibited their employees from taking a lover. Apologists for the AKB48 chastity clause argue that a girl’s value as an idol is compromised if it becomes known she has a boyfriend because her job is to “sell fantasies” to male fans. In fact, quite a few fans have commented on chat sites that they felt “betrayed” and “lied to” by AKB members who began dating.

I have a different view. Teenage girls and women in their 20s are at an age when their love life is the most exciting — a time that’s arguably the best chance to experience the ups and downs of the adventures of love and life. Their managers and producers surely don’t have the right to deprive them of that opportunity.

Some might say that if the girls want love, they shouldn’t join the group in the first place. This argument could be and is used by the worst corporate exploiters to justify just about any illegal contract provision.

So can you be fired for violating such a provision, for a reason grounded in your private life? Dismissals must have “objective and rational grounds” (Labor Contract Law, Article 16).

Asahikawa District Court on Dec. 27, 1989, ruled against a company (Hankiko Setsubi) that fired a female employee but not a male one after discovering the two were committing adultery.

Management reasoned that even if it does not interfere with work, “adultery adversely affects the company’s moral order, hurts coworkers’ motivation, and makes the president lose face.” While acknowledging that the woman’s actions were illegal and immoral, the court said that only specific damage to the running of the company constitutes hurting the workers’ moral order or motivation, a condition not met in this case.

Thus judicial precedent prohibits disciplinary action for problematic personal behavior that has no connection with work duties. Meanwhile, only if such personal actions severely damage a company’s overall reputation can they be considered to have seriously damaged the company’s moral order.

It is clear that the AKB48 chastity clause fails to meet the court’s criteria for legitimate grounds for dismissal.

To members of AKB48: If you want to fight for your right to live and love freely, you’ll need solidarity with your fellow band members, so why not establish a union? The “Vegetable Sisters” should be sisters in deed as well as name — not rivals.

Hifumi Okunuki teaches constitutional and labor law at Daito Bunka University and Jissen Women’s University, among others. She also serves as paralegal for Zenkoku Ippan Tokyo General Union. Usually on the third Tuesday of the month, Hifumi looks at a famous case in Japan’s legal history to illustrate an important principle in labor law.