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

labor pains 13

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. 

Labor law protects expectant and new mothers — to a point

http://www.japantimes.co.jp/text/fl20121016lp.html

 

Tuesday, Oct. 16, 2012

By HIFUMI OKUNUKI

I had a labor consultation with a woman who said: “The other day I told my company I was pregnant. My boss asked me to quit because the firm can’t afford to give me time off. One of my coworkers once resigned before giving birth but I want to stay on. Do I have to quit now that I am pregnant?”

The short answer is no. The longer answer is: no way.

Today’s labor laws do not permit the dismissal of a woman for being pregnant; neither do they allow her to be asked to resign. Labor Standards Law Article 65, Sections 1 and 2, mandate maternity leave as follows: “An employee may take the six weeks before birth as leave, while the employer must not allow her to work for the eight weeks after birth (excepting the last two weeks of that period, during which she may work if she requests it and has a doctor’s note permitting it).”

Article 19 also prohibits dismissal for the first 30 days upon her return to work. Equal Employment Opportunity Law Article 9 also shifts the burden onto the employer to prove that the reason for dismissing a pregnant woman is something other than the pregnancy itself. Without proof, the dismissal is invalid.

The article also prohibits any kind of disadvantageous treatment of women who take maternity leave as prescribed. Such prohibited treatment includes pay cuts, demotions, status changes from seishainregular to irregular employee, transfers, suspensions, lower bonus payment, bad evaluations, etc.

Two cases dominate jurisprudence and the law journals on this issue.

Nihon Schering K.K. is the Japanese subsidiary of a German pharmaceutical firm. Twenty-four employees sued the company for lost wages due to one clause of a labor management agreement (LMA) between the drug maker and the No. 2 Union that read: “Any days off for maternity leave, menstruation leave, childcare leave or paid holidays will be counted when calculating attendance rates, and any worker with less than 80 percent attendance will be denied promotions and pay raises.”

The Supreme Court’s Petty Bench ruled on Dec. 14, 1989, that “any provision that suppresses the right to holidays guaranteed by law violates kōjo (public morals) and is therefore invalid,” a victory for the plaintiffs.

Fourteen years later, the same bench cited the above case to reach a more ambiguous verdict.

An employee of Toho Gakuen (Toho Academy) sought to recover two bonuses denied her because she took eight weeks off for maternity leave and then reduced her work hours because of subsequent childcare commitments. On Dec. 4, 2003, the judge overturned the wage regulation that deprived her of the bonuses but permitted the school to prorate the bonus, reducing it in proportion to the hours and days she was off.

The court’s logic was based on Article 65 of Labor Standards Law, which does not require that the leave itself be paid, so long as there are no other deductions. (This is similar to the law on strikes, which prohibits any disadvantageous treatment but does not require that the time struck be paid.)

The cut in her bonus payments proved to be deep for the woman working at Toho Academy, since the bonuses had accounted for more than 30 percent of her annual income. Such cuts to income discourage us women to have and raise children — not good news in a society that needs more children.

Maybe the Supreme Court should take a bit broader view and consider the financial “labor pains” involved in having a child.

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. On the third Tuesday of each month, Hifumi looks at a famous case in Japan’s legal history to illustrate an important principle in labor law.

In ‘right-to-work’ Japan, employees should also have the right to rest

By HIFUMI OKUNUKI

According to the tagline for the 1991 film “City Slickers,” “All you need in life is love, courage and paid holidays.” Indeed, some of us may find meaning to our lives through single-minded devotion to our jobs, but without leisure time our bodies and minds would inevitably putter out. Taken to extremes, we may even start to wonder what we are living for.

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Supreme Court knocks down discipline of mentally ill employee

By HIFUMI OKUNUKI

Can a company discipline an employee for taking absence without leave if that worker could be suffering from mental illness? Just a few weeks ago, on April 27, the Supreme Court ruled against Hewlett-Packard Japan Ltd. in a case that posed precisely this question. The verdict illustrates the courts’ thinking on a very modern ill of Japanese labor.

Let’s take a look at the facts of the case.

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