Last Updated: Wednesday, 17 January 2018, 20:36 GMT

2010 Annual Survey of violations of trade union rights - Japan

Publisher International Trade Union Confederation
Publication Date 9 June 2010
Cite as International Trade Union Confederation, 2010 Annual Survey of violations of trade union rights - Japan, 9 June 2010, available at: [accessed 18 January 2018]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Population: 127,700,000
Capital: Tokyo
ILO Core Conventions Ratified: 29 – 87 – 98 – 100 – 138 – 182

Many "atypical workers" remain unorganised, which makes it difficult to exercise the right to bargain collectively. Many of the tens of thousands of foreign workers who come to Japan through the "trainee visa" system end up in sweatshops. After 22 years of struggle, the workers of the former Japan National Railways have not yet been fully compensated.

Trade union rights in law

While the Constitution recognises workers' freedom of association and their right to organise, bargain and act collectively, problematic areas exist in the law. Civil service employees and, to a lesser extent, employees of state-run companies and private companies that provide essential services enjoy limited trade union rights. Administrative and clerical workers can not conclude collective agreements as their wages are set by law and/or regulations. The system of trade union registration for local public employees also requires separate unions to be created in each municipality. Furthermore, all public employees are banned from striking. The government has transformed public agencies into Independent Administrative Institutions (IAIs), which are classified as "organisationally independent from the government". Workers in "non-specified IAIs" are not considered public servants, and therefore enjoy the right to strike. Union leaders who incite strike action in the public sector can be dismissed and fined or imprisoned for up to three years.

Trade union rights in practice and violations in 2009

Background: The centre-left Democratic Party of Japan won a landslide victory in the general election in August 2009, sweeping away more than 50 years of nearly unbroken rule by the conservative Liberal Democratic Party. The new Prime Minister, Mr Hatoyama promised "revolutionary change" that would put the quality of life of ordinary Japanese ahead of big business interests. Among other promises, he pledged for free high-school education and a higher minimum wage.

Organising hampered by increased use of fixed-term contracts: The law stipulates that fixed-term contracts can be concluded for up to three years (and in exceptional cases up to five years is allowed for professionals). Employers frequently use this system in order to circumvent the legal provisions protecting workers on permanent contracts from dismissal, by only renewing the short-term contracts rather than converting them into permanent ones. The increased use of these contracts undermines regular employment and creates great obstacles to unions seeking to organise. Furthermore, the working conditions of fixed-term contract workers are inferior, mainly because most part-timers fall outside the scope of the rather limited Part-Time Work Law.

Changes in the employment relationship causing growing difficulties for union organising and activities: The number of atypical workers, who include part-timers, indirectly employed workers recruited for temporary work by agencies or for contract work by sub-contracting companies, as well as individuals working on a contract basis and are not considered employees under current laws, is growing. The Labour Force Survey conducted by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications found that 34.1% of all employees were non-regular workers in the period between July and September 2009.

Organising atypical workers is being addressed, but many of these workers remain unorganised, which makes it difficult to exercise the right to bargain collectively. RENGO has stepped up its efforts to organise and support these workers by setting up a department for for "non-regular" (atypical) within the RENGO office, which cooperates with its affiliates and local RENGO offices.

Diversification of types of enterprise: The Supreme Court ruled that an entity can only be considered an employer when "such an entity is in a position to actually determine workers' basic working conditions" through direct involvement. In most cases, holding companies or investment fund companies (which are very common in Japan) are only indirectly involved in influencing the decisions on working conditions of their shareholding companies. Hence, they are not considered as employers in law, and it is difficult for trade unions to conduct collective bargaining with holding companies or investment fund companies.

Abuse of "trainee visa" system for sweatshop labour: Employers also abuse the Industrial Training Programme (ITP) and Technical Internship Programme (TIP), which provide three-year visas for unskilled foreign workers to come to Japan to be trained. Despite promises of being provided training in technological skills, many of the tens of thousands of foreign workers who come to Japan end up in sweatshops, forced to work long hours in dangerous conditions for as little as half the minimum wage. Employers additionally confiscate their work permits and deny them their right to form a union and bargain collectively. In many cases, employment agencies which provide foreign workers or companies from the sending countries also abuse the system and exploit the workers through inferior employment contracts. As a result, the law for partial amendment to the "Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act and the Special Act on the Immigration Control of, Inter Alia, Those who have Lost Japanese Nationality Pursuant to the Treaty of Peace with Japan" (hereinafter referred to as "the amended Immigration Control Act") was passed and enacted at the regular Diet session of 2009, and promulgated on 15 July 2009. The amended Immigration Control Act contains new provisions including revision of the ITP and the TIP. The amended act will come into force in July 2010.

22-year struggle by the workers of the former Japan National Railways: The National Railway Workers Union (Kokuro) and the All Japan Construction, Transport and General Workers' Union (Zendoro, currently Kenkoro-Tetsudo Honbu) have continued their 22-year struggle against the Japan Railway Construction, Transport and Technology Agency (JRTT), focused on their complaint that their members were not hired by the new JR companies at the time of the division and privatisation of Japan National Railways in 1987 simply because they were Kokuro or Zendoro members. As regards the lawsuit brought by Zendoro, on 23 January 2008 the Tokyo District Court recognised the existence of unfair discrimination and ordered JRTT to pay compensation of 5.5 million Japanese yen per complainant. Kokuro and Zendoro regarded the legal decision as unsatisfactory given the long and painful struggle that their members had undergone for 22 years, and declared their intention to continue their struggle until a full settlement of the issue of reinstatement of their 1,047 members was reached. Little progress had been reported by the end of 2009.

Copyright notice: © ITUC-CSI-IGB 2010

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