Foreign Worker Solidarity Day

Yesterday, March 22nd, three unions: NUGW Tokyo Nambu, Kanagawa City Union, and Zentoitsu Workers Union joined forces in an action-packed day of five demonstrations. The day’s actions were in response to unresolved disputes ranging from dismissals, including two dismissals for pregnancy, to union busting and threats of dismissal, to unpaid wages and passport confiscation.

The day finished up with two heated collective bargaining sessions, one in the afternoon with XXX, and another later that evening with the vehemently anti-union XXX, apparently still reeling from the combined might of three unions and a sound truck earlier in the day.

March In March 2006

400 foreigners in a simultaneous demonstration seeking job security and an end to discrimination.

The Asahi Shimbun reported on the web Sunday evening and in their morning print edition. In fact, many of the Asahi’s “400 foreigners” were Japanese, who joined foreigners in what is the beginning of a civil rights movement in Japan. The Japan Times also ran an AP photo on Monday, captioned:

Demonstrators demand job security and equal job opportunities for foreigners during a march Sunday in Tokyo in which some 300 foreigners and Japanese union members took part.

Thanks to all Nambu members and participants in Tokyo, Nagoya, Osaka, and Fukuoka who joined the 2006 March in March. You have made all the difference. See all of you again on March 4, 2007.

Kosei Gakuen Girls High School Protest

Many thanks to Nambu members who made it all the way out to Chitosekarasuyama at 7:40am on Christmas Eve to protest the non-renewal of a member at Kosei Gakuen Girls High School. The high school has only one entrance, which made it very easy to hand out leaflets to the students as they arrived. The student population is about 500, and we handed out over 400 leaflets, so the majority of the girls, and their parents, will now be aware of the administration’s arbitrary approach to hiring and firing.

Begunto Trick-or-Treats with Berlitz in Omiya

Flash Demo at Berlitz Omiya Branch

Teachers Disciplined For Trivial Reasons

The disrequest system at Berlitz is just one example of threats to job security faced by teachers in the eikaiwa industry. HR representatives claim that a pattern of complaints concerning any particular instructor can lead to discipline, and that six to eight official disrequests over a period of two years is enough to constitute a pattern.

Given that teachers may meet hundreds of students and teach thousands of lessons over the period of a year, added to the fact that complaints can be based on anything from the teacher?s facial expression (?she didn?t smile?) to completely subjective judgements (?we weren?t a good match?), the unfairness of this standard is immediately apparent.

The union cannot allow teachers to face discipline, and potential threats to their livelihood, based on such standards. BEGUNTO will continue to fight for job security both at Berlitz, and throughout the industry.

Fighting Unfair Dismissals at IHT/Asahi Shimbun

The IHT/Asahi Shimbun branch president Chie and two other branch members were recently dismissed as part of the newspaper’s continuing campaign against our union and their refusal to respect the basic labour rights of employees and the company’s legal obligations under Trade Union Law.

We had an exciting shuro seikyu, a formal written demand to be given work, to protest and refuse their unfair dismissals at Asahi Shimbun, demanding that the newspaper let our three members go back to work. The company refused, as we expected, but we will go back again on August 2nd and August 3rd. Daily delivery of shuro seikyu is an important part of fighting an unfair dismissal in Japan.

Our members were fired after refusing to sign a contract that calls for their termination after five years. The union has for years demanded they be given contracts and recognized as employees. The company calls them independent service providers, thus refusing to recognize their legal rights as employees.

Job security is a major issue for all foreign workers in Japan. A large delegation, like we had today, is a powerful display of union solidarity and clearly shows our intent to fight all the way to reinstate our members.

Interac Demo, Round 2

Over 15 members showed up Saturday morning for the second Interac demonstration. We played music (“You can’ get me cuz I’m in the union…”) and spoke for about 30 minutes, passing out our mark II Interac dispute newsletter.

We set the bullhorn again on the hillock opposite the company. Hundreds of students (probably on their way to Hosei University) passed by and the vast majority took flyers. We also took several poses, including a “j’accuse” stance with us all extending our arms and pointing to the Interac office in imitation of the Memphis balcony in the seconds after Martin Luther King’s assassination.

The day was hot but fun overall. Again the cops came (only one actually) and very politely asked us if we had a labor dispute and how long we would be. After we answered him, he left quietly.

Interac Demonstration

Each Saturday morning Interac offers free Japanese lessons to ALTs at HQ. So we were right back out there Saturday morning with our posters and fliers – this time 17 members. We figured surely Interac wouldn’t cancel an entire class just to avoid the union’s demonstration. Again we had underestimated Interac’s cowardice.

We set the bullhorn facing the firm on a hillock across the road. We spoke our grievances to the morning passers-by. We played an inspiring union song on a CD player that kept flaking out.

Three cops approached and began speaking to Yoko-the only Japanese member of our party. I stepped in, anticipating the usual official harassment. To my surprise, they were polite–even gracious. They asked us two questions: one, “Is this a labor-management dispute?”, and two, “How long will your demo last?” They were quite satisfied with our answers and casually strolled off back up the road.

GS Samantha made a stirring, personal speech, closing with an appeal to Interac to listen to us: “Kiite kudasai.”

Then we sent branch members and guards up to the second floor office-cheering them on. Back down the delegation reported that Interac staff were gone. We felt flattered that Interac would do us the great honor of showing their fear of us. Twice. We continued to pass out fliers accusing the Chairman, Seiichi Matsumoto, of wimpiness and breaking the law.

We finished off our 45-minute demo with a loud shprehicall and music.

This weekend was just the first step for our newest branch, but it was a big one.

Interac runs from collective bargaining

Unable after weeks to get Interac and its slippery Chairman Seiichi Matsumoto to agree to talks…or even to talk…even on the phone, Nambu Interac Branch and several other Nambu activists went to Interac HQ in Iidabashi Friday evening to demand collective bargaining.

We knew Interac HQ operates until 9pm so arriving at 7pm gave us plenty of wiggle room. When we reached the building, however, it was all locked up and the inside lobby was dark. Interac shares the building with several other firms so we were perplexed.

Stepping back we could see lights on the second floor. We pressed the button on the night intercom. Rain was falling steadily.

“This is the Interac union. We’re here for collective bargaining.”

“I didn’t hear anything about it. They all went home already.”
“We can see lights on their floor.”

And so it went – me and an unseen gruff man bickering about the right to pass. He refused to budge and cut the connection. Most of us knew of Interac management’s breathtaking cowardice – but were they such scaredey cats that they would hide in their office till 9? We later learned that they were scareder still.

Concerned that they might use an escape route, we sent a couple of scouts around to scour the base of the building for alternative exits. Garrett found a locked door at the top of a dark stairs.

We were just about to post a sentry there with a cellfone when from the darkness of the lobby a face appeared. Through the locked door he explained how to get to the garage which has an entrance. Being paranoid by nature I left a guard at the door in case the instruction was a ruse to decoy us away from the front door while Interac management snuck out.

The rest of us made our way to the garage entrance where a guard sat behind a desk and window. I prepared to confront him but he hadn’t noticed us so with mouth still poised to speak we walked by.

“Wait a minute. I can’t let you pass,” said a familiar voice.

Our right of passage – not really what this phrase means – evolved into a full-fledged debate: Greg proved he was an employee by showing his gaitoh-shoh (foreign registration card); the guard demonstrated that Interac had split by letting the phone ring.

Heated debate gave way to negotiations. I said let us go up and check the second floor. The guard agreed on condition that one person alone go and that I agree not to disturb any other company.

When the elevator doors opened I saw that Interac was indeed closed for business. Everything was dark, locked and brand new signs said, “No unauthorized personnel!” in Japanese and English. The lights we had seen from outside were at the company next door.

Back down at the underground garage level I conceded to the guard that Interac had left. The guard then made an admission of his own: “Well, they usually work till 9 but this evening they were in quite a hurry to leave by 6. They even asked me to hold a package that was to be picked up after they left.” The guard even apologized for his arrogance. I apologized and explained our predicament. I left my calling card.

So the entire HQ staff of the nation’s largest ALT dispatcher skedaddled out of work three hours early to avoid talking to five of their employees. I realized that Interac’s savvy anti-union strategy had a name: Operation Run-For-The-Hills.

Foreign Teachers’ Concerns Voiced at Diet Hearings

On Friday 15 April, foreign teachers, members of NUGW Tokyo Nambu branch unions, assembled in a boisterous demonstration opposite the Diet building in Tokyo. Union members from Fukuoka, Iwate, Kobe, and Nagoya, as well as over 30 participants from Kanto, were present. “Being here really does make a difference,” said Louis Carlet, Nambu Deputy Secretary-General. Carlet introduced nine members currently in dispute and Diet Representative Kazuo Inoue, who pledged his commitment to human rights and to improving the working conditions of foreign teachers in Japan.

In the following hearing, NUGW members were supported by Democratic Party of Japan Representatives Inoue and Chiemi Kobayashi in quizzing seven officials from the ministries of Health, Labour and Welfare, and Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT). In opening remarks, Representative Kobayashi detailed problems faced by minorities in Japan, including the plight of refugees, the media emphasis on crimes by foreigners, and the need for greater understanding and exchange at the personal level.

As discussions got under way, Louis Carlet argued pushed for more effective Labor Standards Offices to eliminate unpaid wages and unpaid overtime. One sign of progress was the action of the Education Ministry in sending out notices to boards of education telling them to stop using illegal servicing contracts (gyomu itaku) for ALTs. Another issue raised was the increasing use of fixed-term non-renewable contracts. In support of this and other contentions, Robert Lohmann, UTU president, presented the translation of The University Teachers Union Survey of Foreign Nationals at Japanese Universities 2004. Over a quarter of the respondents were on fixed-term contracts, which threatened the security and livelihoods of teachers, both foreign and Japanese, and their families. Lohmann appealed for issues raised by the survey to be further investigated, and called for greater legal protection and security for foreign workers. Evan Heimlich, chair of the Kobe University Branch of Education Workers Amalgamated Union (EWA) Osaka, then raised the issue of the Tokunin systems which require foreign language teachers, with the expiration of their contracts, to compete for their own posts against ?fresh? applicants.

A statement in Japanese was presented to Inoue-san and the ministries’ officials. It generated considerable comment by the officials, but as in past hearings, on contract issues the bureaucrats consistently shirked responsibility. They referred to discriminatory policies as labor-management issues for adjudication on a case-by-case basis by the Labor Relations Commission.

Ten days later, at a hearing in the Diet Building, Representative Inoue posed questions to MEXT Minister Nariaki Nakayama concerning the state of English and other foreign language education in Japan with reference to the working conditions of foreign teachers in Japan. Inoue is concerned with the needs of Japan for native speaker language teachers in a changing economy and their treatment in Japan. Representatives of University Teachers Union, Fukuoka General Union, and the EWA have presented these issues to Inoue-san and other Diet members for discussion in hearings before Ministries officials.

Discriminatory practices against foreign workers in Japan are long-standing and well-documented. Union members must take focused, directed and ongoing action to overcome the institutional and cultural biases that constrain our actions and discount our contributions to our host country.

Public Hearing at Nagatacho

Foreign University Lecturers and Four Unions Meet Ministry Officials and Lawmakers

What was expected to be another lackluster negotiating sessions with junior officials of the Ministry of Education (MoE), the Ministry of Labor and Welfare (MoL/W) and the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) concerning the problems of foreign university teachers turned out to be the real deal this time. Seven or more lawmakers or their secretaries and 15 ministry officials met with over 30 union members and their supporters on March 8th at House of Councilors Conference Hall in Nagatacho, Tokyo. Requests and questions had been submitted in advance by Part-time Teachers? Union Tokyo (UPTL-Tokyo), University Teachers Union (UTU), Part-time Teachers?Union in Osaka (UPTL-Kansai) and Fukuoka General Union (FGU). The issues raised concerned limited-term contracts and their consequences, discrimination against foreign teachers, especially with regard to promotion and information policy, and the drawbacks of the Japanese pension system to foreigners who work for fewer than 25 years in Japan. The UTU Survey of Foreign Nationals at Japanese Universities 2004 had clearly depicted these matters as major issues. The bureaucrats read out their replies to the union presentations unemotionally and almost inaudibly, but rapidly, so that even some Japanese could not understand.

The ensuing discussion showed the government?s position ? discrimination based on nationality is prohibited by the Labour Standards Law, but the conditions foreigners are subject to are not explicitly prohibited or addressed by the Law. If they were, the ministries would have to take them on case-by-case, or individuals could take the cases to the Labour Council. Reiko Endo of the (UPTL-Kansai) emphatically insisted that we have many clear cases of discrimination. As one example, Noboru Shida, president of the UPTL-Tokyo, introduced an associate professor of English who has been working at International University of Health and Welfare in Tochigi for ten years, during which he has been the university’s only tenured foreign teacher. Now the university is trying to demote him and cut his pay because they say his Japanese is not good ? this, even though he’s developed many language programs, is more widely published than all of his department colleagues combined, and has among the highest student evaluations in the university. In addition, all foreign teachers (with the exception of two Chinese contract teachers who don’t belong to the labor union) have been, or will soon be, fired. Demands for response by lawmakers produced only meaningless, repetitious, mumbled answers from the bureaucrats.

The atmosphere changed when Arudou Debito of Sapporo described the case of Gwendolyn Gallagher who was fired from Asahikawa University because her Japanese was too good! She was considered no longer a ?fresh gaijin?. No response was heard from the ministries officials. At that point, FGU chairperson Stephanie Houghton stood up to contrast the way she felt as an ALT working for the Ministry of Education in 1993 with the way she now feels at her university on a limited non-renewable contract; a policy seemingly approved by the ministry. She said she was disgusted at the racism she now feels in Japan as an unwanted long-term native-speaker. Stephanie then quoted from the definition of racial discrimination given in the International Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination and asked whether the officials thought discrimination against culturally hybrid native-speakers of foreign languages (who no longer count as ?fresh gaijin?) counted as discrimination. Applause from the union side at her lively account ? embarrassment on the part of the officials.

Then, SPJ head Mizuho Fukushima stepped in to ask the officials to research the issues and provide written answers. The MoE official replied twice that they did not know whether any research had been done and whether any data existed. Stephanie reminded the officials that the Japanese government is obliged to submit reports to the United Nations on racial discrimination in Japan and asked how the government could possible do this if they did not research the problem. Once again, silence ensued. Lawmakers and unions once again pressured them to research the problems the unions had brought up and were ordered by Diet Member Fukushima to report to M. Kaneda`s office, in written form, and stated that the unions would be furnished the reports by Kaneda?s office. The hearing ended after 75 minutes.

The progress demonstrated at these hearings was the visible support of more Upper and Lower House representatives. The movement to secure equal treatment for foreign university instructors is gaining momentum, and the ministries cannot brush it aside easily anymore. But further cooperation among foreigners is required, as well as better networking among unions presenting foreigners? problems. For this reason, and for your own sake as a foreigner in Japan, take some interest these proceedings and support your labour unions in their struggle against discrimination, and for more stable workplaces. (HT-UTU)