Japan: Unionized, Young Workers Fight for their Rights

Original source: Japan Press Weekly

Young workers, who had never thought about joining a labor union, founded their own union at a small factory in Ozu City, Ehime Prefecture. Their efforts to achieve labor rights have started to change working conditions at their workplace.

Encouraged by union

In mid-August last year, Nakano Takahiro, 32, used his paid holiday to visit a “Hello Work” office (Public Employment Security Office) in his local town, hoping to find another job. He was going to leave his current workplace, where he had worked for a year.

When Nakano told a staff at the office that he wanted to quit his job because of a wage cut, the response he received was something he did not expect: “A labor union could help. Why don’t you stay in your workshop a little longer?”

That was when Nakano realized that he had no need to give up his job. He searched the Internet and found the National Confederation of Trade Unions (Zenroren), which he had heard of before, and soon found the website of the Ehime Prefectural Federation of Trade Unions (Ehime-Roren). That day, he called the local union’s counseling center. It was the first time for him to make contact with a labor union.

“You have a chance to improve your working conditions if you stay there. Talk to colleagues you can trust,” said Ii Kazutake, chair of the Ehime Union of General Workers (Ehime-Ippan). He then suggested that Nakano found a labor union at his workshop.

“He understood my situation and told me that the company was treating us illegally,” Nakano recalled. Ii told Nakano that he would visit him and explain to him and his coworkers how to organize union actions. “With Ii’s encouraging words, I realized that a labor union is exactly we needed,” said Nakano.

Sudden wage cut

Nakano’s place of employment is a cosmetics factory which opened in July 2009. Most of its 60 employees, including the part-timers, are locals.

After graduating from the local high school, Nakano moved to Ishikawa Prefecture and worked there for 10 years. Then he heard from his parents about the opening of a new factory in his hometown. Having all of their four children working outside of Ehime, his parents were hoping for Nakano to return home. With his wish to work and have a family in his local town, Nakano moved back and applied for a job at the factory.

For the first several months before the operation of the factory got off the ground, Nakano worked overtime until midnight everyday. Taking pride in contributing to the establishment of the new business, he thought that his employer appreciated his hard work.

In July 2010, the company suddenly notified employees that they were cutting wages by 20% on average. Since Nakano started working there, he received a very low monthly wage of about 160,000 yen without wage increases. When he asked about the reason for the 20% wage cut, the company gave no reasonable answer.

The company requested each worker to sign a letter of consent for the wage cut. Because they refused to sign the document, Nakano and other three workers were facing the risk of dismissal.

More than 10 workers form a union

A few days after the telephone call to the union, Nakano and more than 10 of his colleagues, mainly young workers, gathered at a coffee shop in Ozu City to hear about what a labor union is from Ehime-Ippan members. It was surprising for Nakano to see so many workers coming to this meeting. “All of them looked serious with eager eyes,” he recalled.

It was the first time for them to learn about a labor union and talk together about their problems at the workplace. After the discussion, they said, “We are not in the wrong. It was a lie we were told before that ‘unions destroy a companies’.”

In late August, more than 10 workers formed a branch of the Ehime-Ippan. Union members’ average age is 29. Nakano was elected as the chair.

With their union organized, the members found that they can speak out against company policy and talk about workplace problems with the company management through the union. In the past, all they could do was to quietly grumble among themselves.

In the first collective bargaining session, union members requested the company to cancel the wage cuts and ease its rules on paid leave. The union is still negotiating the issue of wage cuts but has won the company’s decision to relax the rules on paid leave. The union members said, “If we hadn’t formed a union, company management would never have sat down at the negotiating table with us workers.”

Union gets more and more support

Four months have been passed since the inauguration of the union. More and more workers began expressing their support for the union.

In December 2010, the company held an election to choose its employee representative. In this election, union chair Nakano defeated his rival, who was backed by the company, with a vote of 52-3.

The union conducted a questionnaire about workers’ demands regarding working conditions, including wages and bonuses. More than 70% of workers answered the questionnaire and some of them added messages of encouragement to the union.

'Union is our strength'

The union members have a great thirst for learning more about labor issues both from books and from other union activists’ experiences. Nakano in October participated in a lecture course for union members held by Zenroren in Sendai City. He said, “For the union members in my workplace, I want to gain a lot of knowledge. If I can’t answer their questions, I will lose their trust. I won’t give up any more. We have the union. The union is our strength.”

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