‘Maternity harassment’ verdict benefits women, men — and our humanity

Last Thursday’s Supreme Court verdict in the “maternity harassment” case brought by a physical therapist in Hiroshima was the first of its kind, overturning decades of business-friendly jurisprudence along with rulings from the district and high courts.

As I mentioned in last year’s September Labor Pains (“Mata-hara: turning the clock back on women’s rights”), the word mata-hara is short for maternity harassment, just as seku-hara and pawa-hara refer to sexual harassment and power harassment, respectively. Maternity harassment means workplace discrimination against pregnant or childbearing women, including dismissal, contract nonrenewal and wage cuts.

Read more‘Maternity harassment’ verdict benefits women, men — and our humanity

Job insecurity among Japan’s university teachers is a recipe for further decline

Buyer's market
Buyer’s market: With the population shrinking, colleges in Japan are desperate to seize a share of the dwindling ‘customer base.’ | ANN AKINO

Universities in Japan are caught up in a cutthroat struggle for survival. As the population of children plummets, so, in turn, does the number of college entrants.

The decline is particularly stark considering that the number of universities had swelled on the back of the postwar baby boom and bubble economy. Institutions of higher learning are frantic to seize a share of the dwindling “customer base.” Universities choosing students is a thing of the past: Now students select universities.

Born in the early 1970s, I’m what’s known in Japan as a second-wave baby boomer. As a college student in the early 1990s, I experienced the emotional stress and hardship of entrance-exam hell. Many uni hopefuls failed their exams and became so-called wandering ronin for a year until the next round of tests. The term was derived from samurai in the Meiji Era and earlier who left their feudal domain and thus belonged nowhere. During this “nowhere time,” these modern-day academic ronin often studied from early morning until late at night, leading to nervous breakdowns and even cases of children murdering their overbearing parents.

Read moreJob insecurity among Japan’s university teachers is a recipe for further decline

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。

Read more職場には、民主的な従業員代表が必要だ!

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.

AKB48 on stage

AKB48 members deserve to get workers’ comp for saw attack

On May 25, a man wielding a saw attacked and wounded 19-year-old Rina Kawaei and 18-year-old Anna Iriyama, two members of bumper girl group AKB48, and a male staffer at an event where fans get to shake hands with their AKB idols.

Fortunately the injuries were minor, but fans were shocked. The victims and their AKB48 comrades must have been terrified.

Read moreAKB48 members deserve to get workers’ comp for saw attack

Japanese firms have much to lose in battles over bogus outsourcing

What is a gyōmu itaku contract? It is basically an outsourcing contract: A company decides it cannot handle a certain job itself, so it outsources the work to another company — or an individual. Individuals on gyōmu itaku contracts are not considered rōdōsha (employees/workers) in the legal sense, and are thus not protected by the Labor Standards Law or most other labor laws. In that way, gyōmu itaku contracts differ greatly from employment or labor contracts (rōdō keiyaku).

Read moreJapanese firms have much to lose in battles over bogus outsourcing

Foreign workers fear exploitation as Olympic projects gather steam

My first Labor Pains column of the new fiscal year will look at the government’s recent proposal for bringing in foreign workers.

Various proposals on easing immigration restrictions for foreign workers have been bandied about in recent years, but they were inevitably scrapped because “Japan is but a tiny island nation.” (In fact, Japan is the fifth-largest island nation in the world, after Australia, Indonesia, Madagascar and Papua New Guinea.) Incidentally, there are currently 2.03 million foreign residents and more than 700,000 foreign workers in Japan, so the country is already quite multinational and multiethnic in composition.

Read moreForeign workers fear exploitation as Olympic projects gather steam

Tozen Vlog for April 8, 2014

Holding on to resignation letters may be common but it’s neither right nor valid

New NHK President Katsuto Momii made headlines around the world with his claim that “comfort women” have been a common feature of conflicts involving “every country.” Using sex slaves in wartime, he said, was only wrong according to “today’s morality.” Causing great concern to press-freedom advocates, he also insisted that “when the government says ‘right,’ we cannot say ‘left.’ “lbrpnz140328

Read moreHolding on to resignation letters may be common but it’s neither right nor valid

Image taken from debito.org

ANA caricature speaks volumes about Japan’s outdated mind-set

By Hifumi Okunuki

Last month, a new ANA commercial hit the airwaves — and quickly ran into some serious turbulence.

The scene is Haneda Airport. Two Japanese men dressed as pilots stand with their backs to the camera.

“Haneda has more international flights nowadays,” says one.

“Finally,” replies the other.

“Next stop, Vancouver,” the first man says.

“Next stop, Hanoi,” his friend replies.

“Exciting, isn’t it?”

“You want a hug?” the taller man says, out of nowhere. The shorter man stares at him in bewilderment.

The man who proposed hugging criticizes him, saying, “Such a Japanese reaction.”

“Because I am Japanese,” the man says in his defense.

“I see,” says his partner, before falling into a contemplative silence. “Let’s change the image of Japanese people.”

When the camera returns to the shorter man, he is wearing a blond wig and a false nose of Pinocchio proportions. “Sure,” he says.

A voiceover then intones the All Nippon Airways slogan, “From Haneda to the world, ANA,” and the commercial ends.

As soon as this ad aired, ANA was inundated with criticism. The thrust of the complaints was that the ad was racist and exaggerated the physical features of white people to point of mocking them.

ANA did not seem to have anticipated such a reaction. It swiftly apologized and removed the offending final image from the clip on TV and online. (Though it was only the TV commercial that received criticism, they also took down posters of one of the actors from the commercial wearing the traditional dress of various countries.)

What interested me in particular was the difference between the reactions of Japanese and foreigners who saw this ad. At my labor union there are members of many different nationalities, the large majority of whom expressed unhappiness or indignation toward the ad. “How did they fail to anticipate this would offend people?” many asked.

On the other hand, Japanese people I know reacted with bewilderment. “It’s certainly childish,” their comments tended to run, “but I couldn’t call it racist. On the contrary, since blond hair and big noses are something that in Japanese culture have long been held up as attractive, the ad is more an expression of Japanese people’s sense of inferiority.”

My personal opinion is that the ad is a disappointing anachronism, and a reminder of the parochial outlook of large Japanese corporations. The ad appeals to the facile formula that “foreigner = white = blonde and big-nosed = English-speaking = globalization.” But this feels bizarrely outdated and out of place coming from ANA, a major carrier trying to depict the airport generically — and Haneda in particular — as some sort of stage for exchange between the world’s many races and nationalities. Instead, the ad unintentionally shows that the Japanese archetype of thegaijin (foreigner) remains as strong as ever.

So why is it that so many of the Japanese people I spoke to couldn’t understand why foreigners would be angry about this “racist” ad? I think, fundamentally, it has to do with the very narrow image that postwar Japan has had of what “abroad” and “foreigners” mean. Because postwar Japan has been politically, socially, culturally and in almost every other respect in thrall to the West — and particularly the United States — the view that blond, big-nosed, blue-eyed and English-speaking are somehow “better” or the “global model” is widespread.

At the same time, the former targets of Japanese invasion in Asia, such as China and South Korea, have been largely ignored. Political leaders have avoided the question of responsibility for the war, and ordinary people have relatively little opportunity to study their own recent history. Japan has considered itself as separate from Asia, due to its status as the only Asian country that succeeded in developing into a major economic power. For postwar Japan, “foreign” has basically meant “American.”

As Japan’s own economic engine has puttered out, China has started to grow rapidly and South Korea has become a major hub of popular entertainment and industry, and many Japanese now feel threatened and see these countries as rivals.

The Japanese media have been eager to belittle their neighbors. And so, Japan, which up to now had adopted a “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” attitude to its history of war against its neighbors, is at the stage where its politicians are actively trying to make excuses for its past aggression and are even trying to apportion blame to the Koreans and Chinese.

Japan is thus far from becoming “global” in any real sense of the word. In a nutshell, the world for Japan consists of China and Korea — the objects of resentment and controversy — and the rest, who are all blond, big-nosed English-speakers.

Japanese women’s magazines often run articles with titles like “How to do your makeup for that foreign look” or “half look,” where “foreigner” obviously means “white Westerner” and “half” means “a half-Japanese, half-white mix.” No one who reads these headlines would consider that they could be referring to half-Chinese or half-Filipino Japanese, even though we inhabit a world of around 200 different countries, most of which are majority non-Caucasian.

It’s from this perspective that the trade ministry is raising its voice and calling for Japan to prepare workers with a more “global outlook” and to stop the trend of young people “looking inward” (uchimuki).

This is laughable. It would certainly be better if young people looked out at the world, provided they recognize and appreciate its true ethnic, linguistic and cultural diversity — and that this diversity cannot and should not be ranked in terms of which traits are better or worse. That would be some real globalization.

Apologies for the long buildup, but I felt this commercial brought up an important point regarding the situation of foreign workers in Japan. But first, I would like to ask readers what they think: Do Japanese businesses discriminate against foreigners?

Japanese labor law has only one or two articles that touch on the subject of foreigners. The crucial one is Article 3 of the Labor Standards Act, which states that “an employer shall not engage in discriminatory treatment with respect to wages, working hours or other working conditions by reason of the nationality, creed or social status of any worker.”

This is called the principle of equal treatment. Nationality is considered to encompass the concept of race in this article.

It’s not necessarily a bad thing that Article 3 is the only section of the Labor Standards Act that refers to foreigners. Since every article of labor law should apply to every person working in Japan, I don’t think there’s any need to make any special mention of foreigners elsewhere.

So, if Japanese labor law protects foreigners and Japanese equally, what’s the problem? Let’s look at the Tokyo Kokusai Gakuen case (Tokyo District Court, March 15, 2001).

The defendant was a language school that employed the 16 plaintiffs in the case (of whom three were Japanese) as teachers. The case centered on claims of unpaid wages and security of contract renewals.

The foreign teachers were employed on a separate contract to the Japanese teachers (the contract was called the “Foreigner Contract”). The difference between the two contracts was that the one the Japanese instructors were on was permanent, whereas the foreigners were on fixed-term contracts. The plaintiffs alleged that this difference violated the aforementioned equal-treatment principle.

On this point, the court ruled against the teachers, finding that “the difference in contracts did not violate Article 3 of the Labor Standards Act” — the reason being, the court said, that “foreign teachers were employed as temporary, semi-regular staff and were given higher pay to compensate for the difference. The school did not discriminate in any other way.”

In other words, the court found that since the foreigners had no corresponding complaint about being paid more than Japanese in the same work, then it was not discriminatory for foreigners to be denied permanent employment.

This finding brings to mind the attitude that my Japanese friends had with regards to the ANA commercial: Sure, foreigners get a ribbing, but the racial traits exaggerated in the ad are desirable to us, so it can’t be racist. In a similar vein, according to the Tokyo District Court ruling, foreigners are on fixed-term contracts but they get paid more, so it can’t be discrimination.

I cannot agree with the court’s reasoning. High pay doesn’t make limiting foreigners’ term of employment fair. Isn’t it in principle discriminatory that Japanese are automatically put on lower-wage permanent contracts, and foreigners are automatically put on higher-wage limited-term contracts, completely disregarding the wishes of any of the individuals concerned?

Why is it that just because you are a foreigner, permanent employment is automatically off the table? And why does higher pay justify limited-term contracts? No rational reason comes to mind.

I think the principle of equal treatment established in Article 3 of the Labor Standards Act is a wonderful thing. The reality, however, is that constant violations of the principle persist in Japanese workplaces to this day.

It is important, now more than ever, for working people to fight for all workers’ rights to equality and security at the workplace. This is not something employers should be able to use to divide their employees. Instead of pandering to the grotesque caricature of globalization in ANA’s ad, employees would be better off heeding the global call of “Workers of the world, unite!”

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.