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Editorial: Japan’s largest labor group needs to become more of a force

  • November 18, 2019
  • , The Mainichi
  • English Press

The Japanese Trade Union Confederation, commonly known as Rengo, marks its 30th anniversary this week since its foundation as a nationwide organization of major labor unions.


Over the past three decades, Japan has seen the collapse of the speculation-driven, asset-inflating bubble economy and prolonged deflation. Coupled with the progress of globalization, the domestic employment situation has drastically changed.


The largest change is the rising number of non-regular workers as a result of deregulation called for by the business community and other factors. The number of non-regular employees in Japan reached 21.2 million in 2018, and the ratio of such workers in the entire workforce soared to some 40% from around 20% in less than 30 years.


However, Rengo failed to sufficiently respond to the changes of the times.


In the annual spring labor offensive, Rengo at times could not even press for pay-scale increases due to the tough job market.


In the meanwhile, the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe demanded pay raises to the business community in an unusual move, degrading Rengo’s presence as a consequence.


Rengo’s membership numbers have dipped below the approximately 8 million workers it had at the time of its launch, with only around 7 million employees signed up now.


As Rengo has been led by full-time employees of major companies, it has often been dubbed a “regular workers’ club” with privileged status. While the labor group has promoted non-regular workers’ entry into the body since the massive lay-offs of temporary workers in the wake of the 2008 global financial crisis triggered by the collapse of Lehman Brothers, its mission is only half complete.


Rengo’s political influence is also waning. In the past, Rengo played a role in the establishment of the coalition government of Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa and later the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ)-led administration just as the business lobby sought a change of government by non-Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) forces it supported.


However, once the LDP returned to power, the DPJ fell apart, splitting into what are now the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan and the Democratic Party for the People. Support for those opposition parties is also split among labor unions under the wing of Rengo. The business lobby has also seen its opinion divided over nuclear power generation and other policy measures.


The significance of labor unions remains unchanged then and now. Cases of karoshi, or death induced by overwork, have not been eliminated in Japan. Yet, even under the work-style reform legislation that was passed at the initiative of the government, overtime caps are set at the same levels as overtime hours recognized as eligible for workers’ compensation for karoshi. Workers face a plethora of issues such as harassment in and outside the workplace and sweatshop-like labor conditions for young part-timers.


If Rengo fails to deal with these challenges, it would further undermine its raison d’etre.


On the occasion of the 30th anniversary of its inauguration, Rengo launched a “fair work promotion center,” which offers consultations to freelance workers and foreign laborers on top of non-regular employees. It is essential for the center to cooperate with nonprofit organizations and other related entities.


For Rengo to rebuild its presence, it ought to return to its very original cause of “protecting workers in vulnerable positions” and extend broader support to workers including non-union employees.

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