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Change to 12-hour shifts for Japanese guards at US Navy base may violate local labor laws

YOKOSUKA — Commander Fleet Activities Yokosuka, a U.S. naval base in this east Japan city, has notified its Japanese security guards that their work hours will be changed from eight-hour to 12-hour shifts starting August, individuals linked to the case told the Mainichi Shimbun.


The naval base, in the Kanagawa Prefecture city of Yokosuka, only notified the security guards in writing, and has not held any information sessions for them. The U.S.-Japan Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) stipulates that as a general rule, Japanese laws apply to Japanese workers employed at U.S. bases in Japan. Experts have pointed out that unilateral working conditions changes violate labor laws.


According to sources associated with the case, the shift-change notification came on paper. A document dated June 1 titled “Notification regarding changes in work schedules and responsibilities” was distributed at the security guards’ workplace. It states that from Aug. 1, “all security guards will be given four 12-hour shifts.” Reasons cited for the change are “the coordination of personnel assignment and training with U.S. naval police” and “the reinforcement of cohesion among troops.”


The document also notes shift-change merits, including “a decrease in the number of workdays, leading to flexibility (in schedules),” and “the opportunity to gain more time to spend with family and friends.” Sources say no explanations in-person or otherwise have been given, aside from the paper with the aforementioned information.


Currently, some 150 security guards work at Yokosuka naval base, with days broken up into three eight-hour shifts. A security guard in his 40s said that he worried whether he could handle the physical demands of a shift extended to 12 hours. He also expressed concern over the citation of “coordination with U.S. naval police” as a reason for the upcoming change, saying, “We’re civilians, but I feel like (the U.S. military) is trying to use us in place of soldiers.” He added that if shifts did change to 12 hours, he thinks “the number of people quitting will increase.”


Article XII Section 5 of SOFA states that “except as may otherwise be mutually agreed, the conditions of employment and work, such as those relating to wages and supplementary payments, the conditions for the protection of workers, and the rights of workers concerning labor relations shall be those laid down by the legislation of Japan.”


Japan’s Labor Contract Law prohibits changes to labor conditions without reasonable justification and agreement from the worker. On June 15, the All Japan Garrison Forces Labor Union’s Yokosuka chapter sought an explanation from the U.S. military through Japan’s Ministry of Defense — the Japanese security guards’ employer — but was unable to obtain assurances it would.


A public relations official for the Yokosuka naval base’s command center issued a statement to the Mainichi Shimbun saying it would not respond to questions about the reason for the shift change, as it is linked to U.S. military operations and missions. The Defense Ministry’s South Kanto Defense Bureau said, “As the (Japanese) government, we are not in a position to comment on exchanges between the U.S. military and employees inside a U.S. military base.” But it added, “We understand that generally speaking, the U.S. military, depending on what its needs are, sets work hours in accordance with labor-related Japanese laws.”


Similar changes have occurred at other bases across Japan. In June 2020, Commander Fleet Activities Sasebo, a U.S. naval base in the west Japan prefecture of Nagasaki, unilaterally notified its Japanese security guards that shifts would change from eight to 12 hours. The All Japan Garrison Forces Labor Union’s Nagasaki district headquarters requested an explanation and retraction of the change, but 12-hour shifts have been in place since August of that year. “I do wonder if the U.S. military is trying to use security guards in place of U.S. soldiers,” Hideyo Watanabe, chairman of the union’s district headquarters said, stressing, “It’s time we confirm how far security guards’ tasks extend.”


Security guards’ labor conditions were brought into question in 2017, when a security guard at the Sasebo naval base was instructed by U.S. military to walk onto a public road outside the base while still carrying a gun. It was said to violate SOFA and the Swords and Firearms Control Law. Additionally, a drill at Yokosuka naval base in 2020 consisted of pepper spray being applied to Japanese security guards’ faces.


Kibihiko Haruta, a professor specializing in labor laws at Okinawa University and an expert in labor issues on U.S. bases said, “Changing labor conditions unilaterally without consent amounts to a violation of the Labor Contract Law. The Defense Ministry must demand the U.S. military follow Japanese laws.


Regarding the U.S. military’s imposition of the same training on security guards as U.S. soldiers, such as carrying firearms, Haruta said, “There is a possibility that (the security guards) will break Japanese laws as a result of following the U.S. military instructions. If they are going to be forced to do the same things as soldiers, they should be granted immunity to the appropriate domestic Japanese laws.”

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