“We see … an increasing public awareness of the importance of core labour standards”

A work in progress

Japan moves closer to adopting ILO standards


Text by Dan Sloan

The Reiwa era has begun in Japan with the tightest labour market in 35 years, with more women, seniors, foreigners and even robots in the workforce than ever. But will better working conditions emerge?

The UN’s International Labour Organisation (ILO) believes so, but recognises that it will take time and considerable effort.

“The ILO pays particular attention to the issues raised by Japanese social partners — the Japanese Trade Union Confederation and Nippon Keidanren,” says ILO Japan Director Akiko Taguchi, noting the organisation’s focus on labour organisation, work place safety, gender equality and sustainable development.

Japan is juggling increasing job vacancies in multiple industries, continuing population decline and strapped public finances. Like the Heisei (8 January 1989 – 30 April 2019) and Showa (1926–1989) eras before it, Reiwa will see extensive change in the work place.

Showa aimed for full male employment amid a growing economy and sometimes harsh working conditions. Heisei began to address the consequences of this expansion, such as dangerous overtime, limited opportunities for women, sexual and power harassment and foreign worker exploitation.

Since it was established, the ILO, which celebrates its centenary this year, has worked to promote a better and safer work place, as well as poverty reduction. Japan was a founding member and is its second-largest financial contributor, holding a permanent seat on its governing body. However, the nation still has not ratified an ILO governance convention on agricultural labour inspections or, crucially, two of eight fundamental conventions, covering the abolition of forced labour and discrimination in the work place.

“The Japanese government has been making a fair effort to fulfil its duty to respect, promote and realise these principles through its policy actions and social dialogue,” says the ILO’s Taguchi, conceding that Japan needs to further revise its laws to comply fully. “We see a momentum towards ratification, reflecting an increasing public awareness of the importance of core labour standards, as well as from the perspective of trade agreements such as the EU–Japan EPA.”

The EU–Japan Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) was signed on the understanding that Japan would ratify the core ILO conventions within a reasonable timeframe, and the EU has called for clear and concrete progress.

Chairman of the European Parliament’s Committee on International Trade Bernd Lange expects near-term action.

“The EU–Japan agreement features a trade and sustainable development chapter, which binds both parties to work towards ratification of the ILO core labour standards not yet ratified,” he says. “The [Japanese] government understands what it has committed to and has put the wheels in motion to deliver the ratification of the outstanding conventions.”

Japan and the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Organising Committee, respectively, signed memorandums of cooperation and understanding with the ILO two years ago to advance socially responsible labour practices. However, Building and Wood Workers’ International (BWI) issued a red card in May with The Dark Side of the Tokyo 2020 Games, its report alleging harsh working conditions at Olympic construction sites and noting two worker deaths.

“The Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics was Japan’s opportunity to address some of the long-running gaps within the construction industry,” says BWI General Secretary Ambet Yuson. “These problems have just gotten worse.”

The ILO, aware of the challenges, has launched a training programme for Games staff that will continue through the Olympics and Paralympics.

“Two Sustainability Forums have taken place, and two more will be organised before the 2020 Summer Games,” says the ILO’s Taguchi. “We hope these actions can make change and become useful tools to achieve decent work.”

The BWI report noted that the number of migrant construction labourers nearly tripled from 2014 to 2017, reaching 55,000. New visa categories for blue-collar workers were established earlier this year in 14 sectors, aiming to attract some 345,000 foreign labourers in a country with 1.62 jobs for every seeker.

Amid the pinch, Japan has also capped overtime at major firms at 45 hours a month and 360 hours a year. Still, overtime can reach 99 hours a month, to a maximum of 720 hours a year, during crunch periods — an amount considered unhealthy — while smaller firms do not need to comply until 2020, and the construction, taxi, and healthcare industries until 2024.

Considering workforce protections, harassment remains a top issue. With a record 72,000 reported cases in fiscal 2017, Japan has enacted legislation requiring companies to prevent workplace intimidation and prohibit firing of harassment whistle-blowers — albeit without set punishments. It also says it supports the ILO’s proposed convention on harassment.

“The ILO is prospecting adoption of a new convention … ‘Violence and Harassment in the World of Work’,” says Taguchi. “This might, by-and-large, influence the national discussion on the set of legal amendments on sexual harassment and power harassment.”

The EU also supports a harassment prevention treaty.

“The agreement has created a platform for discussions on labour relations that can easily be extended beyond the scope of the EPA,” says the EU’s Lange. “I expect the European side to bring this to the table in the near future.”

A record number of women are now employed, but the latest ILO report on Women in Business and Management shows less than 20% of Japanese businessowners are female, and under 15% are female managers. By comparison, 11% of Spanish CEOs are women, while Japanese firms have a mere 0.4% at the top.

Womenomics has been part of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s economic mantra, but his 20-member Cabinet currently has only one female minister. The prime minister did tap nine male Cabinet ministers 65 years or older; Abe himself turns 65 in September.

That greying dynamic is mirrored in the work place. One in every five employees is over 60, and parliament has unveiled plans to push back retirement to 70.

Citizens who worked and paid into social welfare in the Showa and Heisei eras are finding rules changing in Reiwa, which may not become labour’s golden era in Japan, but certainly will be its silver one. 

“The [Japanese] government understands what it has committed to and has put the wheels in motion to deliver the ratification of the outstanding conventions”