Japanese Workers: Raising the Standard of Living All the More Essential Due to Pandemic

March 15, 2021

As the first anniversary of the start of the COVID-19 pandemic approached, the UE International Department asked two of our international allies, Unifor (Canada) and Zenroren (Japan), to share with UE NEWS readers a glimpse into what work and life is like now in their countries. We asked these allied unions to share what their government’s response to the virus had been like, as well as how these unions were organizing or in other ways helping workers to protect themselves during these new health and economic challenges.

Zenroren, the National Confederation of Trade Unions in Japan, represents almost one million workers across all 47 of Japan’s prefectures (like states) in a wide variety of industries, both public and private. They are long-time allies of UE in the struggle to reduce military spending and eliminate war and nuclear weapons. (Read Unifor’s contribution here.)

Masako Obata

I send my warmest greetings and solidarity to all UE members. I was elected president of the National Confederation of Trade Unions (Zenroren) at its Convention in July last year.

The workers and people in Japan as well as the United States are seriously affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

On December 29-30, and January 2, union members from Zenroren, Rengo (Japanese Trade Union Confederation), and Zenrokyo (National Trade Union Council) took part in a year-end-New Year labor consultation in Tokyo’s Shinjuku Ward. Japanese labor lawyers took the initiative for the event called “Consultation Village.” A total of 344 people, who were out of work or who became homeless, visited the site seeking help to solve their problems. About 70 percent of them were in their 20s to 50s, and 20 percent were women.

Neoliberal policies under the successive governments of prime ministers Shinzo Abe and Yoshihide Suga have overemphasized the principle of “self-responsibility,” ignoring the constitutional provision that “all people shall have the right to maintain the minimum standards of wholesome and cultured living.” In Japan, there are a growing number of contingent workers who are afflicted by poverty due to job losses or business closures. They may run out of food if they don’t have work for a month or two.

The point is that real wages have been declining over the many years in Japan since before the outbreak of the coronavirus. The pandemic is exacerbating the employment situation and further holding down wages. Contingent workers and women workers are particularly affected by the contradictions, producing a surge in the number of suicides.

The immediate goal of our movement is the creation of a society that provides increased public support instead of sacrificing the working people as we make efforts to overcome the coronavirus crisis. We refuse to resign ourselves to life affected by the pandemic. We are aiming to win substantial wage increases while raising the standard of living in order to ensure that everyone can enjoy a decent life. We are demanding stable employment and strict working time regulations as part of the effort to establish rules to ensure that everyone can work with dignity. We are fighting for healthcare and other social services and public systems that guarantee people’s safety and life free from anxiety.

The coronavirus pandemic has revealed that wages for workers have fallen to levels that are inadequate for supporting their lives. The policies serving the best interest of the business sector at the cost of worker well-being have been exposed. We reject a choice between job security and pay increase, and fight for job security and substantial wage increases while raising the standard of living, along with a national minimum wage at 1,500 yen (about 14 dollars) per hour. We argue that these are all the more essential because of the pandemic. We are encouraged by the US workers’ fight making progress for raising the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour under the new administration of President Joe Biden.

Securing living wages for all workers is the only way to get over the present economic situation amid the COVID-19 pandemic. A taxi drivers’ union federation affiliated with Zenroren has successfully protected their jobs despite the pandemic having a severe impact on the industry. Many new unions have been created since last year among taxi drivers. Healthcare unions have refused to take a pay cut and are continuing to fight for workplace safety. In Okinawa, workers in the tourism industry have organized themselves in a new union. They successfully won monetary compensation for restaurant and other food service industry workers during business closures by influencing politics. Our fight is directed to win living wages for anyone who works 8 hours a day by increasing international solidarity.

Zenroren President Obata (center) leads a demonstration in front of the Japan Business Federation
Zenroren President Obata (center) leads a demonstration in front of the Japan Business Federation

Today, the Japanese government and the financial circles are trying to take advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic to promote what they call “diversity and flexibility in work style” and “freedom to choose”. They are encouraging people to work remotely, have a second job or side business. They are calling for using a discretionary working system, easing rules for dismissals, and working in the gig economy, which is exempted from labor laws. The attempt to institute a system to let people work on their self-responsibility is underway in many countries, including Japan and the United States. We must reject attacks that obscure management’s responsibility for arranging reasonable work hours that allow workers to get appropriate rest.

On January 22, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) went into effect. The treaty is a milestone in banning nuclear weapons for the first time under international law. The nuclear-weapon countries are still continuing to compete for the development of nuclear-capable missiles and other weapons while modernizing and reinforcing their nuclear arsenals even at a time when their citizens are at high risk of COVID-19 exposure. We are increasing a movement to press the United States and Japan, which relies upon the US nuclear umbrella, to ratify the TPNW for the sake of preserving people’s lives and the Earth’s environment.

Japan’s government of Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga is calling for the largest-ever military expenditure in the fiscal 2021 (Apr. 2021-Mar. 2022) government budget. What is the point in compiling the largest-ever military budget at a time when the Japanese people are experiencing hardships? The government’s shopping spree for US military hardware continues. It is even purchasing weaponry, which is linked to the plan to acquire capability to attack enemy bases in violation of the Constitution. (The Japanese Constitution, adopted after World War II, prohibits Japan from having a standing military or attacking other countries to settle disputes. -Ed.) These are absolutely unnecessary for defending our country and its people. The demand for “slashing the military budget and redirecting the money towards securing jobs” is shared by Japanese and US workers.

The Japanese and US governments are pushing ahead with construction of a new US Marine Corps base in Okinawa Prefecture in defiance of firm opposition from the people of the prefecture.  Accidents and crimes by US service members are continuing without an end, giving rise to calls to revise the unequal Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) between Japan and the United States. We hope to join our forces with US friends to develop a movement for Japan and the US to replace their bilateral Security Treaty, a military pact, with a peace and friendship treaty.

Japan and the United States are geographically far apart from each other and it is now very difficult for unions from both countries to meet in person due to the pandemic. But we can work to increase solidarity between our two unions by organizing grassroots movements in the workplace and local communities in both countries.

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