Louis Carlet, Tony Dolan, and Orren Frankham present a Tozen Daigaku on how to safely organise your coworkers, what to be careful of, how to build up a union, and their own experiences in building unions.
SNA (Tokyo) — Over 140 million people in over ninety countries around the world have already watched Squid Game, making the Hwang Dong-Hyuk creation the most-watched series in Netflix history.
Its pull is so powerful that many schools in Belgium, the United Kingdom, Canada, and the United States banned Halloween costumes inspired by the drama (which are sold at Amazon.com). The mayor of Seoul has filed a police complaint against the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions for wearing the red and black costumes during a large protest rally.
I too couldn’t stop watching it. Korean dramas show no sign of stopping their march toward global popularity, but nothing has wielded the prowess of this one. Perhaps many of my readers are binging Squid Game as well.
When first seeing the title, you might think, as I did, “What the heck does “squid game” mean”? It’s the name of a game Korean children play in parks, and many such games emerge in the drama. But the players are quirky, diverse, and desperate adults. (Potential spoilers ahead…)
The unemployed 47-year-old protagonist, Seong Gi-Hun (played by Lee Jung-Jae), can’t keep up with his growing gambling debts despite stealing money from his aged mother.
He faces the prospect of never again seeing his little daughter, who lives with his ex-wife and her new husband. He is drawn voluntarily into a bizarre game that offers him and 455 others the chance to win 45.6 billion won (almost US$39 million) if they survive six children’s games.
Here survive means, yes, survive.
This dark fantasy recalls Parasite, the 2019 Academy Award-winning film directed by Bong Joon-Ho. In its own credulity-straining way, Squid Game goes further, taking vicious stabs at the brutal inequality of our society and economy.
The work indicts capitalism itself. Players voluntarily risk their own and others’ lives in twisted child’s play in pursuit of a huge pile of cash that literally hangs over their heads.
The organization running the tournament represents the modern corporation, with a black-clad figure at the corporate helm and hierarchical layers of management, indicated by simple geometric shapes on red suits.
The players who risk their lives for a tiny chance to climb out of debt represent the proletariat.
In their real lives, penury, debt, and humiliation have driven them to the edge of suicide, only to be lured into this one lark of a last chance. The organizers set them in cruel competition against each other.
Super-rich VIP guests, representing shareholders, finance the entire project through gambling on the players like horses. They bet on their players by number and view the competition from a safe distance.
As players are “eliminated,” the pot of money they all fight for gets larger, underlining how human beings’ very lives have been commodified with an explicit price tag: 100 million won (about US$390,000) per life.
Organizers assert that the games are fair, equitable, and free of the discrimination the players face out in the real world.
The Front Man (corporate head) scolds a contestant for “interfering with democracy.” (He later apologizes for permitting an element of unfairness to enter the games.)
This mirrors the spine-chilling propaganda that bombards us daily to manufacture our consent to a brutal system created and run by our rulers, a system that includes frequent murderous acts of aggression and war by the global hegemon.
This game depicts Karl Marx’s analysis of class struggle in Das Kapital in terror-inducing relief, in a manner that drives home to the hearts of viewers the horror of our corporate system in a way that only art can.
That such a film cannot only be produced in South Korea but spread around the world faster than the worst pandemic in a century speaks volumes to a new zeitgeist that can no longer tolerate the lies, violence, and inequality.
The popularity of Kohei Sato’s award-winning 2020 work, Hitoshinse no Shihonron, or Capital in the Anthropocene, speaks to a rising consciousness of class struggle and a waning willingness to buy into our current political and economic system. This book calls for abandoning capitalism as the only way to claw our way out from our impending and self-wrought climate catastrophe.
I look forward to this trend continuing, to growing awareness of the desperate position of the working class vis-a-vis corporate power.
This article was written by Hifumi Okunuki, and originally published by the Shingetsu News Agency (SNA).
On November 3, 2021, Berlitz teachers belonging to Tozen Union’s Begunto local, gathered in front of Berlitz Japan’s Yurakucho Language Center to demand the school reinstate wrongly terminated member Matt. They passed out over 100 leaflets to students and passersby, informing them of the union’s demand.
The corona pandemic has hurt Berlitz’ earnings, leading the company to offer voluntary early retirement packages and apply for government job-security assistance. The aid is premised on the company not laying off employees. Yet, the school has used the precarious employment of fixed-term contracts as a way to do what one member called, “back-door layoffs.”
In ordinary times, Berlitz automatically renews teachers’ one-year contracts, unless there is a major issue with a particular teacher. Now, the company has lowered the bar for non-renewals, taking away the job security teachers had enjoyed for decades.
The union is committed to fighting until the company reinstate our member Matt and to restoring job security for all Berlitz employees.
On November 4, 2021, Interac Assistant Language Teachers (ALTs) in Kanagawa, Saitama, and Hokkaido struck for workplace safety and fair wages. Tozen members from Interac and other workplaces demonstrated in front of Interac Kanto South HQ in Yokohama.
“We work in high-risk environments during a global pandemic,” said one member. “Interac doesn’t seem to care about us.”
Tozen Union members demanded collective bargaining in November 2019, holding thirty-three sessions since. Initially, some progress was made, but Interac will not agree to provide masks to their ALTs. Despite healthy profits, Interac refuses to make a single concession on wages.
“We implore members of the schools – principals, teachers, parents, and boards of education to speak up and support our strike!”
SNA (Tokyo) — Suit-clad office workers, long-haul truck drivers, ramen shop food preparers, fake priests at faux churches, insurance solicitors, rice paddy farmers, maid cafe servers, security guards, nurses, train conductors, schoolteachers, nursery school caregivers, bank tellers, garbage collectors, plumbers, paralegals, social workers… How many megabytes would it take to list all jobs that occupy the days of the workers who make our society run?
Riddle me this: What job permits you, during a single lifetime, to experience any job on the planet?
Give up? Acting. An actor on stage or screen can do any job that exists and even any job that does not exist. On stage and for a limited time only, before the final curtain, you can become a queen or a serial killer.
The Japanese word rodosha is often translated as “laborer,” but the word “worker” better reflects the ubiquity of its usage. For labor law, however, the word rodosha should on most occasions be translated as “employee,” since it delineates a relationship with management, rather than one’s position in society.
In this piece, I will use rodosha, meaning “employee protected by the various labor laws in Japan.”
Is a stage actor a rodosha? Does she enjoy all protections accorded to a rodosha under labor law?
A recent court case may provide the answer.
Defendant Air Studio Company produces stage plays, films, studio management, handles celebrities, and runs restaurants. The theater troupe Air Studio stages performances nearly each week.
The plaintiff signed a contract and joined the troupe at age 22, dreaming of becoming an actor. In addition to performing on stage, the plaintiff also worked on sets, props, sound, lights, and other tech crew duties–all unpaid. After four years, the firm began paying him a ¥60,000 (US$540) “support stipend” each month. He devoted himself to acting and backstage work without a break, clocking up to twelve hours a day, with no time to eat properly. He fell into financial hardship. At the end of his rope and no future in sight, he left the troupe in 2016.
Then, he sued the company for back wages for his performances and tech crew work. The question arises: was he an employee? Was his work rodo, deserving of wages as stipulated in the Labor Standards Act?
On September 4, 2019, Tokyo District Court ruled that his backstage activities were indeed rodo and in engaging in those activities, he was indeed a rodosha, protected by labor laws. But the court did not recognize his acting on stage as the work of an employee of the company.
Both sides appealed the split verdict to the Tokyo High Court. The plaintiff insisted that his acting too was labor protected by labor law, while the defendant claimed that none of his various duties could be characterized as wage labor performed by an employee (rodosha).
Almost a year later, on September 3, 2020, the High Court ruled in favor of the actor, recognizing all the work, including performing on stage, as labor subject to wage regulations.
The lower court had said that acting on stage was an optional part of his job and that he was free to accept or refuse. Freedom to accept or refuse is a key principle that determines rodosha status in Japanese courts.
The appellate court agreed that the actor could refuse to act on stage with no apparent disadvantageous repercussions, but noted that “one joins a theater troupe in order to act on stage, making refusal inconceivable under normal circumstances. The troupe members prioritized completing the tasks received from the defendant and had no realistic option other than to comply with orders. Thus, they cannot be said to have had the right to accept or refuse.”
The Tokyo High Court concluded that the job fit the definition of a rodosha in Article 9 of the Labor Standards Act and ordered the defendant to pay unpaid wages of ¥1.85 million (US$16,670).
This verdict sent shock waves through the Japanese theater industry, where unpaid apprenticeships have always been the norm. Ripples had spread throughout the industry even with the lower court’s ruling that backstage work was… well… work. But the judge’s ruling that even acting on stage was subject to wage regulations terrified the industry.
We labor law academics have always considered anyone who must follow orders–regardless of the name of the job–as rodosha, but indignant business representatives asked if the court is trying to destroy the Japanese theater industry, and predicted the extinction of all theater troupes, other than giants such as Shiki Theater Company.
It’s fair to say that those pursuing an acting career often struggle with no money but abundant aspiration. Masato Sakai often speaks on television about how he dropped out of college to found his own theater troupe, only to have to string together part-time jobs for a decade as this theater attracted no audiences. He laughs while recounting how he resorted to eating wild dandelions when he was flat broke.
He is not alone–many successful actors share similar experiences.
Many might feel some resistance to this verdict, since this is a world actors choose willingly to dive into. Why should they be counted as an ordinary rodosha? If they are rodosha, then they are entitled to job security and cannot be fired without a darn, good reason.
Yet, actors usually must audition to get parts in a world of cutthroat competition with few cast.
I understand this sentiment for what it’s worth. At the same time, I oppose settling for some sort of extraterritoriality that deprives actors of all labor law protections. While considering the special nature of the work of an actor, we must also ensure an environment that enables them to live lives befitting of human beings.
This article was written by Hifumi Okunuki, and originally published by the Shingetsu News Agency (SNA).
SNA (Tokyo) — We were told that the 1985 Equal Employment Opportunity Act (EEOA) marked the “dawn” of a new age for female workers in Japan. No more could employers blithely set up special marry-and-leave retirement systems for their female employees, a practice that had been considered perfectly legal. Several amendments boosted the reach of the law and wording revisions extended protection from gender discrimination and sexual harassment to male workers.
But, in many ways, Japan remains stuck in its old patriarchic ways. Bucking an international trend, Japan still prohibits same-sex marriage and post-nuptial couples must choose one surname, usually the husband’s (unless one partner is a foreign national). And the law retains the word “gender,” leaving unclear what if any protection is extended to LGBTQ workers.
Louis Carlet and Hifumi Okunuki present the seven legal principles and three law court precedents that you should know.
On Saturday 25th September 2021, Tozen’s local, Begunto held a leafleting action in Nihonbashi.
Begunto recently entered into a dispute, and members are fighting for the reinstatement of our member Matt Wiegand.
(English below the French)
Le 27 septembre, un tribunal spécial du travail (rodo shimpan) a ordonné au Lycée Français international de Tokyo de verser le montant les heures supplémentaires non payées à Amjid Alam, président de l’Union des Personnels du Lycée Français international de Tokyo (UPL) de Tozen Union.
L’école française a deux semaines pour faire appel de la décision auprès du tribunal du district de Tokyo.
Notre correspondant juridique Tozen News a rencontré Alam dans le hall du bâtiment du tribunal, juste après la victoire.
“Ma demande était justifiée. La loi japonaise doit être respectée. Je ne dirais pas que c’est une victoire, car tout ce que cela signifie, c’est que l’école doit respecter le droit du travail local. C’est quelque chose qui aurait dû être fait dès le début”.
(Nous mettrons cette page à jour si la direction décide de faire appel).