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Saturday, April 1, 2017

The General Union

Doing research is fun.  Seriously.  Oh, the things I learned doing fieldwork.

One of the subjects I delved into was employment of foreigners from other OECD countries in Japan.  Where did they work and how were they treated?  Exploring that topic led me to unions.  Yes, worker unions.  According to the Japan Statistics Bureau 2017 Statistical Yearbook (Chapter 19 Labour and Wages) there were over 52,000 unions in Japan in 2015 representing about 10 million workers. 3,579 of those unions represent about half a million workers in the Education and Learning Support industry.

Throughout Asia many Americans, Canadians, British and Australians work in Education, specifically in the EFL (English as a Foreign Language) industry and in Japan, I was surprised to learn, they have worker unions that represent them.

In the 1980s and 1990s teaching English in Japan was a a rewarding experience professionally, personally and financially.  Today it is a sector in which the number of part-timers and contract workers is growing.  There are temporary worker agencies  called "dispatch companies" that offer short-term English teachers to boards of education, private schools and companies.  Even at the university level much of the work is part-time or contract.  There have been complaints and even lawsuits filed by North American and European teachers.

It should not have come as a surprise that some are now joining unions.  Read this 2015 article by Liam Carrigan to understand why he joined one in Japan.  And, yet, I am ashamed to say that I was surprised to find a labor movement like this one in Japan.  Turned out that I had some preconceptions about unions and union members and about North Americans and European migrants everywhere.

The General Union (Carrigan is a member) represents teachers at all levels from preschool to university.  Their members work at private conversation schools or public institutions.  You will notice that their website is in English.  I recommend that you read some of the stories and look closely at what they are fighting for. This is not the usual picture one has of what working in Japan is all about.  I know that many of us don't like the word "migrant" and "migrant labor" but you could make a case, I think, that many North American and Europeans in Japan are what we would call in another context "guest workers."

I was particularly amused by a question asked by a teacher in the FAQ section of the General Union website.  He/she was told that joining a union was not very Japanese.  Looking at the figures above that is clearly not true.  Might even say that it is utter BS. But it brought back a memory - a time when I was having a problem with my French company.  They were refusing to give me something that French labor law required.  So after many fruitless discussions I went to a French labor lawyer and asked him what I should do.  He wrote me a letter and told me send it by registered mail to the company HR.  When they got it, I was called into my boss's office and was told that this wasn't the way things were done in France.  But, hey, I got what I was legally entitled to.

As foreigners working in a different country, we are at a disadvantage.  We don't know the laws, don't necessarily master the language well enough to understand a contract and it's not too hard for employers to take advantage of those things.  Never underestimate the pressure to not raise a stink at your workplace when local labor laws are violated.  And don't be surprised if the company tells you that, well, that's just not done here and a better integrated foreigner would understand that.  Nonsense.

My personal opinion here is that not fighting for your rights under local labor laws causes harm to ALL workers in your host country.  When foreign labor accepts poor working conditions, fewer benefits and less pay than a native worker, then foreigners will be hired because they are cheap, temporary, and meek.  Please explain to me how this would be beneficial to Japanese or French workers?  It isn't and they have every right to be angry about it (though I wish they would take their anger out on the companies and not on the foreign workers.)

For that reason, I applaud the people here who are fighting.  This is service in the interests of everyone:  foreign residents and citizens.

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