By Sadie Robinson
Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 2584

Unions should fight for Japan’s workers

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Issue 2584
Prime minister Shinzo Abe is not motivated by a concern for workers
Prime minister Shinzo Abe is not motivated by a concern for workers (Pic: NATO/Flickr)

Economic difficulties and political discontent lies behind a row over workers’ wages in Japan.

Prime minister Shinzo Abe this week repeated his call for private sector bosses to grant a 3 percent pay rise. He has hinted that firms giving the rises would be rewarded.

“To see record high profits turn to wage rises and capital investment, we’ll mobilise all our policies including the budget, taxation and regulatory reform,” Abe said earlier this year.

Japan’s trade union federation, Rengo, has demanded 4 percent in 2018. It asked for the same figure this year—but workers only got an average rise of 1.98 percent.

The unions failed to fight for more.

This has led some to conclude that the prime minister is fighting harder than unions for wages.

Abe isn’t concerned for workers’ quality of life. But he hopes that giving workers a bigger disposable income will boost Japan’s ailing economy.

While there have been record profits since he came to office in 2012, Japan remains mired in deflation.

Five years of stimulus packages have failed.

And Japan’s low birth rate has led to an ageing population and smaller workforce—leading to the worst labour shortages in 40 years.

Bosses are resisting Abe’s demand for pay rises. The Japan Business Federation is known as Keidanren.


It may urge the most profitable firms to grant the rise and let the rest off the hook.

Yet the shortage of workers has forced some bosses to offer permanent contracts and pensions to try and attract workers.

Abe has also come under pressure from opponents trying to capitalise on discontent in Japan.

His Liberal Democratic party won a snap general election in October. But the Hope party, formed just a month before, picked up 50 seats.

The Spectator magazine referred to the Hope party’s leader, Yuriko Koike, as “Japan’s female version of Corbyn”.

It described how young people in Japan attend her rallies waving broccoli to celebrate her green credentials.

Koike’s party picked up members from conservative groups, despite her publicly railing against “the establishment”.

This rhetoric may lie behind Abe’s election promises to spend more on free childcare and social security.

Workers have a lot to be disgruntled about.

Overwork in Japan is so serious that there is a word for death attributed to it–karoshi. Even official figures admit that there are hundreds of cases of karoshi every year.

Many workers feel they have to work excessive ­overtime to keep their jobs.

A recent survey found that workers in nearly a quarter of Japanese firms work over 80 hours overtime a month, often unpaid.

The Financial Times newspaper recently argued that “decades of economic stagnation and competition from China have made the unions cautious”.

But as bosses become more desperate for workers and the prime minister calls for pay rises, now would be a good time to fight back.

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