A 24-year-old pressured to work long, hard hours beyond what she could tolerate at the largest advertising agency in Japan jumped from her third-floor dorm room on Christmas Day of last year.
This story went viral, and labor researchers around the country mumbled to themselves, “Dentsu again?”
Dentsu is an ad giant notorious for brutal work hours and its merciless management style. Any labor law textbook worth its salt that covers karōshi (death by overwork) will also introduce the Supreme Court’s famous Dentsu death-by-overwork case. In August 1991 a man, also 24, hanged himself at his home. In 2000, Japan’s highest court ruled that the “suicide was caused by horrendous working conditions.” Eventually Dentsu and the surviving family agreed on a settlement of ¥168 million.
Let me apologize up front for tackling an issue that is not purely about labor per se.
The brutal mass murder in July in Sagamihara, Kanagawa Prefecture, made me feel that our society must address a simple yet difficult question: What does work mean to human beings? I feel that I must candidly convey to you, dear readers, what this tragedy says to me, and then ask you for your opinions.
I research labor law and teach it to university students. In the first class, I break up the two groups of labor laws — those related to individual and collective labor relations — for my students. Individual labor relations law begins and ends with the 1947 Labor Standards Act (rōdō kijun hō); its collective counterpart is surely the 1950 Trade Union Act (rōdō kumiai hō).
About 99.9 percent of my 18-20-year-olds look blank the first time they hear the word “rōdō kumiai,” or labor union. Some of them have arubaito (part-time jobs) and thus already have become rōdōsha (workers) protected by labor laws, but they have not heard of labor unions and have no idea what such a creature looks like. I have my work cut out trying to explain to them the concepts of labor unions, collective bargaining and striking.
On May 4, a tiny cafe in Tokyo’s Koenji neighborhood was transformed into an informal meeting hall. Porn-film kingpins (and a “queenpin”) had called an “emergency meeting” to respond to a recently released report by Human Rights Now (HRN).
On March 3, the international NGO, which is based in Tokyo and has U.N. special consultative status, reported the results of an in-depth investigation into the pornography business in Japan. The report concluded that the industry had violated the human rights of women and girls through means such as blackmail, virtual enslavement and seeking illegal breach-of-contract damages from women who try to back out of films after being persuaded or duped into acting in them.
Eleven years ago, baseball players walked off the field in protest for the first time in the seven-decade professional history of the game in Japan.
Owners wanted to consolidate two of the dozen pro teams, without offering a replacement. Players opposed the merger and were outraged that they had been kept out of the decision-making process. Atsuya Furuta of the Tokyo Yakult Swallows led collective bargaining on behalf of the Japan Professional Baseball Players Association union. Talks broke down and players struck six scheduled games over two days.
Players reached out to their fans with signing and photo events. Most fans sided with the striking players, but a vocal minority accused them of selfishness and having insulted their fans.
It always strikes me as odd how striking workers — rather than stubborn bosses — are often the ones accused of greed. The players did not take the decision to strike lightly; they had agonized over the decision and certainly were not taking their fans for granted. They made impassioned appeals to the fans that a strike was the only way they could save the wonderful spirit of the game.
Japan’s old calendar called December shiwasu (師走). These two kanji mean “teacher” and “run.” The idea was that the last month of the year is so busy that even a staid, starch-shirted professor finds him or herself scurrying around like a rabbit, trying to get everything done on time.
As we hurtle toward 2014, it’s time to look back on how the Year of the Snake treated labor. In keeping with the growing trend on TV, blogs and news sites, I’ve devoted this final edition of the year to a Top 5 list. The Top 5 Labor Pains of 2013 will focus on what really shook things up in terms of labor relations and employment law. In keeping with convention, I’ll count backwards.
Note: These are my personal picks and you may question my choices or believe other labor news to be more deserving of inclusion. If so, please don’t hesitate to let me know.
5. The planned ‘special dismissal zone’
The media jumped on the plan, calling the proposed area a “dismissal zone,” to which academic Tatsuo Hatta, the head of the working group, retorted, “It’s a job creation zone, not a dismissal zone.”
What kind of jobs do these planners intend to create for us? Since firms are free to employ and un-employ workers at will, these workers will in effect become interchangeable parts in the corporate machine. For every job created, employers can cherry-pick which workers to let go, leading to massive turnover and great social instability.
The plan raised such an uproar that it has been put off for now. But proponents will not roll over so easily. When the winds are right, they are sure to give it another shot.
4. Rin Danda, labor standards inspector
I cannot overemphasize the significance of the fact that a labor standards inspector was made the protagonist of a TV series.
I had already read the comic book “Dandarin,” which follows the adventures of plucky Rin Danda, and was concerned that something might be lost in translation en route to TV. I have been reassured by the first series, which ended Wednesday. It is obvious that producers have researched the Labor Standards Bureau properly and have carefully avoided making the script preachy.
Ratings have been poor, but the series has gone a long way toward conveying the reality facing the modern worker in Japan.
3. The Fukushima far-more-than-50
Do you remember the “Fukushima 50″? They were the workers who struggled frantically to regain control over the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant just after the triple meltdown caused by the March 11, 2011, Great East Japan Earthquake and ensuing tsunami. The domestic and foreign media heaped accolades upon them, suggesting they were heroes burning with a sense of mission who demonstrated remarkable courage in fulfilling their duties with scant regard for their own lives.
More than 2½ years have passed, yet the government and society have nearly forgotten those who still toil day and night at the plant. If they were to drop their tools for even a night, the resulting contamination could leave our country uninhabitable. And it isn’t just 50 of them anymore — let’s recognize the thousands of heroes who have worked, still work and will work at the Fukushima No. 1 plant to contain the contamination and protect our environment.
And what are working conditions like for these heroes? Unfortunately, many workers there are slaving under horrible sweatshop conditions. Tokyo Electric Power Co. hires layer upon layer of subcontractors, sub-subcontractors and so on, with most workers involved in the cleanup eking out a living on the very lowest tiers of this exploitation pyramid.
The biggest problem with this structure is that no one can figure out who is accountable for employment and working conditions. With little or no preparation or training, these workers are suddenly thrust into highly dangerous tasks beyond the reach of labor law but well within the reach of harmful daily doses of ionizing radiation. Even their “danger pay” is skimmed by their bosses and their bosses’ bosses.
Most workers grin and bear it without a peep of protest, fearful of losing the only job they can find. Recently, however, one worker employed by a fifth-tier subcontractor took action. He was told upon hiring that he would not have to work in dangerous conditions, yet he was assigned to increasingly high-exposure tasks, such as removing glass near one of the reactor buildings. The day after he protested that he had been promised a safe job, he was fired.
He joined a labor union, which requested collective bargaining with five companies, including Tepco itself, over demands such as reinstatement, an end to false outsourcing (gisō ukeoi) and the payment of the promised danger money. Only his direct employer — the fifth-tier subcontractor — agreed to negotiate. His union sued Tepco and the other defiant firms in the Tokyo Labor Commission for refusing to engage in collective bargaining. Tepco claimed to know nothing of the request for collective bargaining and refused to comment.
Going on three years since the accident, we still have little to show in terms of protecting the rights of nuclear power plant workers.
2. ‘Black company’ makes it into Top 10 buzzwords
The winning “Buzzwords of the Year” for 2013 in the annual contest held by publishing house Jiyukokuminsha and correspondence education provider U-Can were “Ima desho!” (Why not now!), omotenashi (hospitality),jejeje (an expression of surprise) andbaikaeshi (double payback). I won’t go into the above expressions here, but I will discuss burakku kigyō, which made the Top 10.
Literally, the term means “black company,” but it might more properly be rendered as “evil corporation.” The phrase describes firms who find profit and success by scoffing at labor laws and brutally exploiting employees, particularly young workers who do not know the law. Some companies literally work their employees to death. Or suicide.
The word went viral thanks to the efforts of Haruki Konno, the director of the labor consultancy NPO Hojin Posse.
Some have pointed out that using a term derived from the English word “black” to mean “evil” is racist toward those of African descent. There are many words in Japanese that seem to associate “black” with negative things:kuroboshi (defeat), haraguroi hito (mean person) and kuro (guilty), to name but a few. There are also exceptions: kurooto (professional) andkuroji (profitable), for example.
For better or worse, burakku kigyō has seeped deep into the language this year and has raised awareness of the existence of some very bad companies. While this is certainly a social problem, it’s also true that it’s up to workers to stand up for themselves and join forces with their colleagues to improve their conditions.
1. Clock starts on the ‘five-year rule’
I had difficulty deciding which Labor Pain to pick for the No. 1 spot this year. In the end, I decided that the “five-year rule” may end up having the greatest impact on workers — for good or ill, it remains unclear. For my part, I cannot help being pessimistic about this change to the Labor Contract Law.
About 26 percent of workers in Japan are on fixed-term contracts. The risk of nonrenewal hangs over their heads each time their contract concludes. It is much easier to fire such workers than those with ordinary permanent contracts. Many companies hire workers on these temporary contracts even though the work is anything but. This “permatemp” status continues year after year and renewal after renewal.
The purported objective of the new rule is to increase job security for the millions on such contracts by letting them attain permanent status after five years. Many employers, however, have decided to go 180 degrees against the spirit of the law and are already planning to let workers go before they reach the five-year milestone, thus making their jobs even less secure.
A small minority of employers are bucking this trend and moving actively to let their workers attain permanent employment status. But even this year — the first year of the five-year “clock” — we see want-ads flooding job sites advertising positions with five-year ceilings.
More frightening still, while employers seem to know enough about the law to evade it, a September study by Japan’s largest union federation, Rengo, indicated that 88 percent of workers on fixed-term contracts were unaware of the nature of the change to the Labor Contract Law. That has to change. We need to know the law in order to use it.
I want to thank all my readers for taking the time to read this year’s 12 Labor Pains. Next year, I plan to take the column in an all-new, more fun direction. Have a good New Year’s and see you in the Year of the Horse.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. On the second Thursday of each month, Hifumi looks at cases in Japan’s legal history to illustrate important principles in labor law. Send your comments and story ideas to email@example.com.
A new specter hangs over Japan: the specter of insecure employment. The source of this insecurity is the August 2012 reform of the Labor Contract Act related to fixed-term employment. Due to take effect April 1, the thrust of the reform is as follows:
1. Workers employed on fixed-term contracts for five years must be granted open-ended employment if they apply for it (Article 18).
2. Establishes clear legal parameters for refusing contract renewal, or yatoidome. (Article 19). (Note: This has already gone into effect.)
3. Prohibits groundless linking of fixed-term employment to unfair working terms (Article 20).
Workers with open-ended (kikan no sadame no nai koyō) and fixed-term employment (yūki koyō) face disparities that don’t logically follow from the simple fact that open-ended employment has no end date. The first is pay. Employers tend to pay their yūki koyō workers a good deal less than their permanent workers. Fixed-term workers tend to be given less professional responsibility, fewer or no promotions, and less or zero pay hikes, bonuses and severance pay.
Japan’s largest retailer reportedly pays winter bonuses of between ¥400,000 and ¥500,000 to many of its permanent staff, and ¥20,000 to fixed-term employees doing the same work. On top of that, fixed-term workers face layoff anxiety each time their contracts come up for renewal, effectively meaning it’s impossible for them to make any long-term plans in their lives.
The original purpose of yūki koyō was presumably to enable employers to find workers to complete work projects that themselves were of fixed duration. In that way, the term of the contract would reflect the time-fixed nature of the work itself.
Yet companies routinely use temporary contracts for work that continues far beyond the end date. They do this to slash labor costs and to shirk all social and economic responsibility for their employees — a responsibility that firms are expected to take seriously in Japan.
Last August’s reform purports to “relieve the nonrenewal anxiety of workers on fixed-term contracts, rectify unfair working conditions justified by the fixed-term relationship, and to realize a society where workers can keep working without anxiety.”
However, even before it kicks in, many employers are bludgeoning the spirit of the reform. Far from increasing job security, companies are scrambling to set up mechanisms to kick out their workers before five years elapses. Employers are citing the new law to justify three-year limits on renewals, and even no renewals at all.
Gone are the days when employers equated “human resources” with “human treasure,” punning on the word jinzai — the days when treating workers with dignity and respect was the secret of corporate success. Overseas commentators once heaped praise on the three sacred treasures that sustained postwar Japan’s rapid economic growth: lifetime employment, seniority pay and company unions (see Ezra F. Vogel’s 1979 book “Japan as No. 1″).
Japanese workers were often disparaged abroad as “economic animals.” But the trade-off was that in exchange for bearing long working hours and the arbitrary dictates of the employer, and with the support of the “three treasures,” the fanatical salaryman could count on “secure, permanent employment.”
Those days are gone. As of March 1, the ranks of fixed-term workers stood at 14.1 million, or more than 25 percent of Japan’s total workforce of 54.52 million, according to a Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications study. With 1 in 4 workers on a fixed-term contract, such a basic desire as job security is edging out of reach, and workers are more atomized than ever. This does not bode well.
And that’s not all. In addition to job security, the principle of equality between worker and employer, a founding principle of Japanese labor law, has been reduced to a husk of its former self. Imagine the effect nonrenewal anxiety hanging over the heads of workers must have on their workplace behavior and relationship with management. They will have to put a great deal of effort into making sure they stay on their boss’s good side.
This state of affairs naturally casts a dark shadow over union activism. Can workers in fear for their jobs band together and raise their voices to assert their rights? Some may have the courage, but many others will take the safe, silent route.
So on top of everything else, this legislation will have a chilling effect on union activism among those on fixed-term contracts. One unionized company has even resorted to putting all new hires onto six-month contracts with no renewal whatsoever. The purpose is to prevent further unionization from gaining a foothold.
Those who will work only six months at a company are unlikely to join a union and fight for better conditions. So the employer now simply sits back and waits for existing members to fall away due to natural attrition. Few drafters of this reform considered the potential abuse of fixed-term employment for the purpose of union-busting.
Having read this far, you will be forgiven for thinking that yūki koyō has no up-side. However, looking at the glass half-full, if you somehow make it to the five-year mark, you will find yourself in a tenured position, unable to be dismissed without legitimate reasons according to the law and social norms. For the employer, this amounts to a loathsome shackle that prevents easy layoffs.
The new law also makes nonrenewal — yatoidome — illegal if there is good reason to expect renewal. What constitutes “good reason” belongs to the notorious gray zone of Japanese law, meaning different judges will rule differently. The law also prohibits unreasonably low working conditions for fixed-term employees compared with regular employees. Again, “unreasonable” remains undefined.
At the end of the day, I believe the reform is irredeemable. To really fix things, we need to prohibit fixed-term employment itself (in most cases) — what is called “regulating at the entrance.”
Let’s look at a legal case study.
The plaintiff started with a six-month contract, then a yearlong one, with publisher Akashi Shoten. Three months into the second contract, the plaintiff and 21 other employees unionized. The plaintiff became an executive of the local union.
When the next renewal period came around, Akashi Shoten management offered the plaintiff a contract with an explicit nonrenewal clause. The plaintiff tried to negotiate a renewal without the new clause, but management held firm. The plaintiff signed the contract but later sued to overturn the nonrenewal.
Tokyo District Court ruled on July 30, 2010, that the plaintiff had in effect been compelled to sign the contract with the nonrenewal clause. The judge also ruled that the yatoidome was invalid as it lacked objective grounds according to social norms, meaning the same bar had to be used as for a dismissal of a permanent employee.
Although not taken up by the court, the publisher also discriminated against other union members and executives. Many were shocked that Akashi Shoten — this paragon in the arena of human rights, famous for protecting the weak and fighting discrimination — was in fact union-busting.
It’s important that we learn from examples of companies using fixed-term contracts to crush unions. Naturally, the best way to fight back is to unionize — and fast.
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.