Tokyo court rulings chip away at labor unions’ right to free speech

The Tokyo District Court handed down its verdict in the Fujibi case last February, with the Tokyo High Court upholding it in July. On both occasions, I couldn’t believe my ears. The courts ruled that labor union Zenrokyo Zenkoku Ippan Tokyo Rodo Kumiai (Tokyo Roso) had committed defamation and damaged the creditworthiness of Fujibi, a medium-size artwork printing company.

Articles 1.2 and 8 of Trade Union Law explicitly exempt labor unions from civil and criminal liability when conducting legitimate labor union activities. This has been broadly interpreted thus far to give unions extraordinary leeway to dish out harsh criticism of their employers, whereas normally such public criticism would constitute illegal (possibly criminal) defamation (meiyo kison) or obstruction of business (gyōmu bōgai). Consumer boycotts are illegal (possibly criminal), whereas strikes by workers are protected by the Constitution, even if they hurt the business.

So these courts ruled that Tokyo Roso’s actions were not legitimate union activities. What were the actions and what led to these verdicts?

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Panel bans Tokyo university’s Japanese-only labor talks policy

TOKYO —

A labor panel ordered a Tokyo university Wednesday to not refuse to use English in negotiations with a foreign teachers’ labor union at its affiliated school.

Tokyo Gakugei University had notified the union at Tokyo Gakugei University International Secondary School that it would hold talks only if Japanese is used, said the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Labor Relations Commission.

The panel branded the policy an “unfair” labor practice and ordered the state-run university to correct it.

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SKYPICSSTUDIO | ISTOCK

A week’s worth of questions about paid leave

Paid leave. The long form in Japanese is nenji yūkyū kyūka; the short form is yūkyū. For workers, yūkyū is a day of “complete liberation from toil,” as one scholar put it.

The right to rest fully is vital in ensuring that workers enjoy long, healthy and anxiety-free lives. Unfortunately, some employers do all they can to discourage their employees from actually taking paid leave, setting up artificial obstacles, insinuating they are lazy and using peer pressure to keep them at their work stations.

I myself teach at a university, and many of my members at Tozen Union are also teachers. I find that teachers in particular find it very difficult to freely take paid leave, and many more are unaware of the government’s guarantee of paid leave. Foreign teachers in particular may be unfamiliar with the law.

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Tozen Union Wins Berlitz Pension Suit, but …

June 17th, 2016 1:25 PM
Tokyo District Court on Friday overturned Japan’s Pension Agency’s 2011 decision rejecting Tozen member Yancey Co’s appeal to enroll in Japan’s shakai hoken health and pension scheme.

Co’s employer Berlitz Japan had kicked him off shakai hoken in 2008, after his work hours apparently fell below 30 hours per week in the wake of the global financial crisis.

The 30-hour, or 3/4 of a full timer, threshold can be found nowhere in labor law but rather in the agency’s internal memo dated June 6, 1980.

The English language instructor from Vancouver, Canada, had asked the agency to force Berlitz to enroll him but through three appeals the agency ruled against him.

Undeterred, Co sued the agency in January 2012. “I wanted part-timers to have the right to enroll.”image

After four and a half years of litigation, Tozen Union sees the Friday victory as a partial victory only.

“We insisted that the memo has no legal force and should not be used to kick someone off shakai hoken,” said Louis Carlet, an executive of Tozen Union. “We were hoping the court would declare the memo illegal. Unfortunately the judge didn’t go that far.”

Tozen Attorney Shoichi Ibuski said, “This is one step forward and we hope to use this to go further still.”

(See video presentation below.)

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Legal change will make temp purgatory permanent for many Japanese workers

Eight years ago, a TV drama about temporary workers generated a great deal of excitement around Japan. In “Haken no Hinkaku” (“Dignity of a Temp”), model-actress-singer Ryoko Shinohara played Haruko Omae, a “super-temp” who masterfully tackled the myriad troubles that arose in her ¥3,000-an-hour job. Unshakable, aloof and playing by her own rules, she performed better than any of the regular employees, refused all overtime and off-the-clock socialization, and shunned flattery and fake smiles to boot.

Unfortunately, the drama did not reflect reality. In real life, critics said, such a temp worker (haken shain) would have been fired on the spot, and regardless of skill level, temp workers tend to be seen as outsiders and are treated worse than regular workers.

On Wednesday, recent revisions to the Worker Dispatch Law go into effect. There was chaotic debate in the Diet over this bill, just as there was with the security bills, but in the end the ruling coalition dealt with it in the same way as it has other unpopular measures: by pushing it through with their majority in both chambers.

Let’s look at the details of the changes.

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Osaka’s General Union lands major court victory on Shakai Hoken

GU court victory against gov’t over insurance to have major impact

On 20 March at 13:25, the Tokyo District Court ruled on the case of a General Union member who sued the Japanese government in an important test case regarding eligibility for enrollment in the Employees Health and Pension Insurance (shakai hoken).
Read more at the GU website here.

Standing up to the country’s flagship carrier

Credibility of justice system in spotlight as highest court to make ruling on JAL layoffs
BY HIFUMI OKUNUKI

Kuala Lumpur, 1977. The rain came down in torrents. The control tower instructed pilots to circle the airport pending better weather. The pilots had the option to divert to a nearby airport where things were quieter. Japan Airlines (JAL) was pushing its employees to cut costs, and the pilot of JAL’s DC8-60 decided not to divert and to circle until the rain let up.

But the rain did not yield. The DC8-60 ran low on fuel and was forced to land come what may. Eight of the 10 crew and 26 of 29 passengers perished in the ensuing crash. This tragedy would inspire one JAL employee, Taeko Uchida, to get serious about union activism in a way that would decades later find her leading a legal and labor battle against Japan’s flagship carrier.

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職場には、民主的な従業員代表が必要だ!

先週、ある人から、以下のような相談を受けた。仮にAさんとしておこう。

「私はいま、東京に本社がある○○というコンサルティング会社で働いていて、もうすぐ3年になります。実は昨日、突然人事部から全社員にメールが来て、『〇〇社の従業員代表について信任投票を行います。従業員代表は、就業規則変更などの際に、従業員を代表して会社に意見を伝えていただくことになります。このたび〇〇社の従業員代表として、△△さんが推薦され、ご本人からもその候補者になる旨の申し出をいただきました。

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A democratically elected rep is every worker’s legal right

Workers
Workers’ voice in negotiations: The lack of a freely and fairly elected workers’ rep could cost employees dearly in the long run, allowing management to alter work rules and worsen conditions with little resistance. | BLOOMBERG

Last week Mr. A came to me for a labor consultation.

“I have worked for Company A for nearly three years,” he said, “and recently I received an email from human resources announcing an election for workers’ rep (jūgyōin daihyō). The email said that the rep’s job would be to communicate the opinion of the workforce on any changes to work rules (shūgyō kisoku), and that Ms. B had been nominated for the post. It went on to say that if an objection from a majority of employees was not received by a certain date, then management would consider her the victor.”

It was the first time Mr. A had heard anything about such a position. He asked me, “What on Earth is a workers’ rep? What do they do? I have nothing against Ms. B, so should I just leave it to her?”

Mr. A’s questions are good ones. The company’s explanation is just not good enough — in fact, its behavior in this case is illegal. First, let me fill in the blanks left by the company about the role of workers’ reps.

The Labor Standards Act (LSA) and other laws contain many articles making reference to a jūgyōin daihyō representing a majority of workers. Management must consult the rep whenever it is considering creating or changing work rules.

Management has to sign an agreement with the workers’ rep (the agreement is called a rōshi kyōtei) in order to introduce the following policies:

a) Forced transfer of a portion of wages into a personal savings account.

b) Wage deductions other than those permitted in the LSA (which areshakai hoken health and pension insurance, and income taxes).

c) Flextime

d) Exemption from laws obliging that breaks be taken by all employees at the same time.

e) Overtime and work on holidays.

f) Management fixing the dates of all but five of workers’ legally guaranteed paid holidays (workers ordinarily can freely choose when they take paid holidays, but with this system they can only freely choose five among the paid holidays accorded by the LSA).

g) Conversion of paid holidays from days into blocks of hours.

These are just some of the examples that demonstrate the important role the workers’ rep plays. The jūgyōin daihyō is supposed to represent the will of all the workers, or at least the majority. If a labor union exists that represents more than 50 percent of the workers, then the union automatically serves the role of the workers’ rep.

Let’s return to Company A’s internal email. The firm has no majority union, so the jūgyōin daihyō must be elected from among the workforce. Mr. A works for the company yet he was given no opportunity to run for election, nominate a coworker or even vote for rep. By the time he received the email, the sole nominee had already been decided by the company. The process was completely lacking in transparency, and the company will consider Ms. B to have won not if she receives a “yes” from the majority but, rather, unless she receives “no” vote from the majority. Company A’s process for choosing a workers’ rep means that rep will not necessarily represent a majority of workers.

Legally, this is a clear red card. Article 6, paragraph 2 of the Rules for Implementation of the Labor Standards Act stipulates that the rep cannot be a member of management and must be elected through ballots, the raising of hands or other (according to a March 31, 1999, Labor Ministry directive) “clearly democratic” process. Part-timers as well as seishain(regular employees) must be part of the election as well — as they are all workers who will be subject to the work rules.

In Japan, employers cannot let their workers toil in excess of eight hours per day or 40 hours per week unless they have signed a written agreement with the rep. This agreement is called a saburoku kyōtei (36 agreement) because it is stipulated in Article 36 of the LSA.

On June 22, 2001, the Supreme Court ruled against photo album firm Tocollo Co. for choosing the leader of a social club at the company as the workers’ rep, who then went on to sign a saburoku kyōtei that permitted overtime work. The country’s highest court said the selection process was illegal because the head of a social club does not represent a majority of employees, as required by law.

The ruling makes clear that Company A is breaking the law by excluding employees from the election of their own representative, and by appointing a company rep rather than a workers’ rep. Unfortunately, many companies in Japan engage in similar illegal practices.

I can imagine the managers at some of these companies watching reports of some overseas dictatorship or rigged elections on TV and mumbling, “How awful!” They then go to work the next day and exercise autocratic power within their companies, including running elections with barely a shred of substantive democratic process. Perhaps they see no irony or contradiction in this.

But responsibility for perpetuating such bad practices lies not only with management. The worker must resist the temptation to shirk the troublesome task of standing for workers’ rep and just leaving it to someone else. Shirking your responsibility could come back to bite you in the behind, in the form of degraded working conditions that management may try to slip in later, including backbreaking overtime hours.

The lack of a freely and fairly elected workers’ rep could cost you dearly in the long run. Having read this far, you can’t say you haven’t been warned!


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 fourth Thursday of each month, Hifumi looks at cases in Japan’s legal history to illustrate important principles in labor law.