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Tokyo Journal


Ever had your "mission ended?"
How about "curtailed" or "rehabilitated?"
Maybe dismissed, down-sized, drawn down or discharged?
You know: Let go? Terminated? Hit the road Jack?

Then you are well acquainted with . . . LABOR PAINS

By Peter S. Crosby

August, 1992

TOKYO. "You tell Mr. Bossman and Mr. Lawyer, if they don't talk to me…." the stout man barks at the phone receiver as he switches it from one scrunched-up shoulder to the other. His black sweater is sprinkled with fuzzballs and white flecks of ash. He is dredging through desktop piles of manila files and papers with his hands, searching for something "If you don't come to the bargaining table, we'll protest with signs right in front of your office."

The National Union of General Workers' (Tokyo South District) office is in Shimbashi, sequestered five floors up from a ramen shop. In the stairwell, sake bottles, smothered in dust and half-buried by tossed newspapers, attest to the hope of recycling. Folding chairs and portable tables make the room more a meeting hall than an office. Mingled smells of sweat and smoke weigh the air.

"All workers have this right," his voice booms off the low ceiling. He uses words such as "retaliation," "scabs" and "goon," while an unlit cigarette juts out his mouth. A black-ink silhouette of Che Guevera toting a machine-gun scowls from a yellowed wall above a computer.

Hard Bargain, a bulky hardcover by the incendiary Canadian labor leader Bob White, gets pushed in our direction. It is signed, "In Solidarity." One of our labor man's eyes doesn't focus so well, so with glasses held up to his face, he surveys the offficescape. "Aaahhhh!" He finds his lighter and fires up.

Who will negotiate then?" he growls down the phone. His impatience is not soothed by the smoke. Bargain, you know," he leans on the verb. "I, myself, Ben Watanabe will bargain." Another struggle begins.

Tsutomu "Ben" Watanabe has been the president of the National Union of General Workers (NUGW) in the South District of Tokyo since 1974. He's been working there since 1961, his first year out of college. It was an inevitable situation. He'd been arrested twice as a student leader at Keio University for organizing demonstrations against the revision of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty. In jail for two months and suspended from the School of Economics, the strident student was unable to take company recruitment examinations. But Ben Watanabe never was salaryman material.

"I was a communist at 17. I quit in 1961 because I criticized their platform, you know . . . I was too revolutionary," he says while xeroxing his autobiographical article about the NUGW. "My father was bourgeoisie," he smiles, "president of a shipbuilding equipment company. But we have a good relationship now. He is retired." In a 70s magazine story, Watanabe once wrote, "We want to be like thieves. Strong in attitude and clever in abilities - 108 lucky thieves!"

Robin Hood he's not. He's the father of two girls, husband of an architect. But from his office, for over three decades, Ben Watanabe has organized meat packers, toll-takers, stonemasons, factory workers - every shade of blue collar. He fights against multinationals, entrepreneurs, the government, and even Rengo (the Japanese Trade Union Confederation) to give outsiders like himself a voice. A shiny public address system on a handcart -- a gift of grateful Toshiba/AMPEX employees who hijacked an assembly plant in Yokohama -- attests to his effectiveness. He does it for anyone. And he does it loudly.

But more and more, Watanabe is helping white-collar workers and foreigners as-with or without a union. As the leader of one of Japan's 37,000 labor unions, he represents one of four broad avenues that exploited employees, worried workers and manhandled managers can turn to in Tokyo's expanding maze of labor assistance programs. The other three avenues - government offices (national and local), volunteer agencies (religious or non), or lawyers (three, yep, three Tokyo Bar Associations) - offer every degree of care, competence and cost comprehensible. The question is which one is best.

Over the course of 30 years, Watanabe has helped to create many of the labor ropes that others profess to know. He knows the system, the players and, sometimes, he knows the difference between the theory of labor law and the reality. Basically, if you have a labor problem in Tokyo, Ben Watanabe is where to go when all else fails.

"I may be notorious with management, but I am no troublemaker. I'm a very ordinary person. I just have common sense."

Watanabe organized the first union of foreigners, at Sony Language Labs, in 1974. Eventually, the union teachers were fired, the case dragged on, and the manager attempted to shut down the school. But at least it was a precedent.

He has organized nearly 100 other English language schools since, and NUGW (South) is now 15 percent foreign, including electronics engineers, translators and editors. Even as the enrollment of foreigners is rising (due to their lack of effective alternatives), the union's total membership is steadily going down. The relative comfort of the economy and the flight of manufacturing from the expensive shores of Tokyo have reduced the rolls to a minimal 2,200.

But the foreigners in NUGW are now activating. A committee to coordinate action on living and working conditions meets monthly. Mostly talk so far, but last year they helped form the first union of Asian workers. Filipino translators with proper work visas weren't being paid their contractual salaries or overtime, and were working and living in cell-like conditions.

"We had a lot of pressure from the Philippines Embassy to quit unionizing. We got phone calls, threats-we were afraid," says Jayne Moreno, the petite leader of the Atras-Japan union. "But Ben is so tough. He planned everything, filed a suit, set traps so management couldn't escape with alibis," Moreno recalls, her R's rrrrrolling Spanishly. "Four months after we met Ben, we had a collective bargaining agreement."

Southeast Asian consular officials have much to protect. The pipeline of "unskilled" and often undocumented migrant workers coming from the Philippines, Thailand and Indonesia to do the "Three K" work - Kitanai (dirty), kiken (dangerous) and kitsui (hard) - is unofficially encouraged by MITT, the Foreign Ministry and the Ministry of Construction. Especially if the labor is cheap and compliant. But the Ministry of Labor official policy states that, "effective measures against a sharp increase of illegal workers are to be taken."

Watanabe's breathing seems to shorten at the mere mention of the Ministry of Labor. "The Chief of Labor Standards Bureau said, 'This Atras company recruited non-specialist workers. According to Immigration law, only skilled specialists are invited to Japan.' Why did the Ministry of Justice give those visas to the Filipinos?" Watanabe uses his lighter to thump his agitation home. "I was very angry, because visas are not the business of the Labor Ministry."

The issue of the national government's policy of managing the labor shortage through "benign neglect" is not so benign from the viewpoint of undocumented workers. Wheeling from the desk to a shelf behind him stacked helter-skelter with books, Watanabe opens a folder holding a flaking, brown-edged copy of the Labor Standards Law. "It's an old one, but nothing's changed since 1948." Another unlit cigarette is bouncing in his lips.

Article 3: "An employer shall not engage in discriminatory treatment with respect to wages, working hours or other working conditions by reason of the nationality, race, creed, or social status of any worker."

The Labor Standards Law is the bible of laborer's rights and employer's responsibilities. It contains the Ministry of Labor's rules for minimum treatment by management, contract validity, wage and overtime payments, firing, quitting, vacations . . . you name it. And the most important stipulation in the law is for work rules that must be registered with the Labor Standards Office for every business with more than 10 employees. These rules become the standard for a company's work policies, and are more important than what an individual's contract might say. So, if your contract is bad you may still have a chance. But it is the difference between the law and the reality that frustrates so many.

"Workers now staying in Japan, documented or undocumented, are affected by the same laws. All races, all nationalities have the same rights." says Watanabe, standing to lean on the back of his chair. "Even though it was made by U.S. officials, we've been using the Labor Standards Law for 45 years. Japanese people have made all interpretations. The Ministry of Labor has to protect all foreigners the same. But still they try to evict them, to kick them out."

The room has become too small for Watanabe and his temper. As we trudge down the stairs, he fumes, "The Ministry of Labor is very rinky-dink . . . crazy, you know." Striding his way to a neighboring Korean barbecue, he resumes: "You can-not find a good person there. The Ministry of Labor is not the organization for workers. They always protect management profits." Through the smoke, he orders a plate of beef for the grill and swears. "They are not the enemy-they're just not useful."

The Ministry of Labor building is a beige monolith that overlooks Hibiya Park. Mitsuyasu Maeda, the Director of the Foreign Workers' Affairs section, Todai graduate, former Parisian student and black belt in judo, is leading me through the three o'clock radio exercises in the hallway. I just sweat, wondering why we're the only people participating.

"The problem with foreigners is only three or four years old, since 1987," Maeda says. He has prepared an envelope of documents for me. The Ministry of Labor estimates there are more than 941,000 foreigners living in Japan, the vast majority of whom are Korean and Chinese residents, many born here -- but at least 200,000 are here to work -- half of them illegally.

But the recurring disparity between officialdom and reality strikes again. The Labor Ministry's official figure for "Illegal Working" (i.e., must be deported) is 29,884 "person units" in 1990 (a number supplied by the Justice Ministry). It is significantly less than the number of foreigners actually deported: 36,264.

"It is very clear: the Ministry of Labor's main job is to help the workers." Maeda smiles, "The Labor Standards offices are only to work from the point of the Labor Standards Law." "Consulting Corners" for foreigners (English-language only) in Tokyo and 10 other cities evaluate cases for their infringement on the law.

"For recovery of lost jobs, money, or injury, workers must take civil action directly to the courts," Maeda advises. "But when employers break the Labor Standards Law it is a crime. We can inspect all company records and places. If the case is grave extortion or some other crimes, the Ministry will sue the employer." Maeda becomes paternal at this moment, almost apologetic, "But, ahhhhh, the police or the Immigration office might get involved."

The l99l Immigration Act, Article 62-2: "Officials of the local and national government must inform about illegal workers in Japan to the Immigration officials concerned."

"The Labor Standards Inspection office is not the police," Maeda laughs. The majority of cases will not be turned over to the Justice Ministry." He points out the window to the Diet building a kilometer away. "Our stance is that the Ministry 9f Labor is here to help the workers. Even if illegal workers come to the Labor Standards Office, please don't worry too much about arrest. They don't arrest, ahhh . . . immediately. I hope they have good luck."

A simple consultation about your problems at the Ministry of Labor's Labor Standards main office, or any one of their 18 Tokyo offices (only in Japanese), doesn't require having a valid visa. But possession of one is critical if you need to use their potent (albeit slow) punishment power.

One popular question that the Labor Standards office cannot deal with is why anyone gets fired. The law states that any employee can be dismissed without reason as long as an employee gets a total of 30 days' notice or 30 days' pay. That's the theory, but the reality is that unions, lawyers, and the Tokyo Metropolitan Government's Labor Administration offices can help you overcome this law.

"Normally, the unions are thinking about their members from the economic point of view." Maeda worked at the Trade Unions Division for years, and believes that, "recently the small trade unions seem more interested in human rights, and more for the rights of foreigners." Then Maeda confided, "I think the involvement of the trade unions is like the new volcano, Unzen, you know? For instance, Watanabe-san."

The labor unions have a big advantage over management. The nation's Constitution protects "the workers rights to organize, bargain and act collectively." That's unusual as far as constitutions go; even the U.S. constitution doesn't go out on that limb. The Trade Union Law also exempts unionists from civil and criminal violations if their actions are "appropriate." Add sympathetic courts, ("overly so," says veteran labor consultant Thomas Nevins) and even a McMurphy could fly in this cuckoo's nest.

"Management gives unions their power," contends Nevins. "A rough union is just an indication of how poor the management must have been." Nevins started out doing research for the Minis-try of Labor's Institute 20 years ago, wrote Labor Pains and The Gaigin Boss seven years ago, and now represents management in union disputes. He gives examples of the extremes to which unions have gone: full page ads in The New York Times against Reader's' Digest, ink balloons thrown at United Artist movie screens, and the "cranes" still protesting at Narita airport under the guise of unions.

Watanabe may be "notorious" in the eyes of boardrooms in much of Tokyo. But he's earned respect and unlikely friends with his methods.

The A.C. Neilsen Company, of TV ratings fame, had been a prime target for Watanabe for over a decade. Until a new president of the Japan operation, Bruce Norris, arrived four years ago, the annual spring labor offensive, or shunto, had always been Watanabe's show -- even though he wasn't a company employee. Norris says, "Senior management was petrified of the union." Norris thought this wasn't fair.

Like a fisherman at a campfire, Watanabe tells the story: "We organized a very hard picket line-only against the president of A.C. Neilsen - that was our tactic. Many of us took over his office one morning." Watanabe cannot restrain his smile. "Mr. Bruce Norris, president of AC. Neilsen Company, was very angry!"

Norris took the issue to the Ministry of Labor. Thomas Nevins was recruited as the company's labor consultant.

So the union organized a long-term strike. Watanabe revels as the size of his fish gets bigger: "Our next tactic: all members do not go on strike together. Some go on strike today, different workers go on strike tomorrow. The company's work cannot be composed, no full operation."

Watanabe's fish grows right out of the pan. "Nevins was telling Norris, 'Ben Watanabe is a troublemaker. You should not compromise. You must fight.'" Watanabe remembers threatening Nevins in return: "'If you fight against me you will lose your name in Japan, okay? Are you prepared? In the past, no foreign employers have won against me,' I threatened him." (Nevins maintains he never met Watanabe during the Neilsen case.)

Nielsen's Norris says, "Ben makes a big fuss to get respect up front. Then he backs off, gets reasonable."

Watanabe's modus vivendi, as per Watanabe is, "I don't threaten, I only tell the truth. I'll go to your office and ask for negotiation. If you refuse, our union will organize a big demonstration or picket line or protest action." He leans back in the vinyl-covered folding chair. "That's a true story, you know. If management thinks that is threatening, that is their understanding."

Norris should know. Last April he left A.C. Neilson and sought legal redress. Watanabe was supportive. Norris, who has since moved on to a regional director's position in a Hong Kong firm, says, "When I left Japan, Ben and the union organized a farewell party for me."

Watanabe's power has ebbed and flowed in Tokyo but, even after being on the warpath for so long, he still has many arrows in his quill. He says, "Some company lawyers are old adversaries good fighters; many in the First Tokyo Bar Association. They are always fighting against me. In the past, I have won every case," he claims. "We know each other now, so they try to compromise with me."

The number of lawyers on either side of the labor-management fence is miniscule compared to the West, ostensibly because of the sociological propensity for amicable settlements, but the impossible bar entry exams also fuel rumors of bribery, secret guilds and blacklists. Next year, the number of attorneys admitted to training for the bar will increase 40 percent. But it's not soon enough to accommodate the increasing needs for legal assistance,

Four new organizations to help foreigners have started in the last 18 months. Referral operations mostly, but their common advice process sounds like it could be a client prospecting racket: a free consultation, followed by a plea for a fee, then a contingency payment of 10 to 20 percent of the winnings upon settlement. This is especially true at the Japan Bar Association where income certification is required before a claim can proceed.

However, the nature of the voluntary involvement and the amount of pro boon legal assistance in Tokyo is significant. The Foreigners' Human Rights Center, part of The Tokyo Bar Association, offers consultations, but also supports it with a legal aid fund. Lawyers for Foreign Laborers gives free phone consultations.

Lawyers are also stepping up to personally guarantee visas so clients can stay and fight labor disputes. Several lawyers are now using "attorney-client" privilege to protect the undocumented status of their migrant-worker clients who will receive little compensation -- if they win.

"In theory, you can sue, but practically no fruit will be gained," said Isao Sohma, a fairly upbeat attorney who, like half of the legal professionals, works independently of a big firm. Fact is, only about three percent of court actions on behalf of foreigners ever win.

But the growing awareness of human rights is a step towards advocacy. "We Japanese must stand in a line and fight for common labor sense," says Satoshi Murata from his cubbyhole of an office. He is attempting to prove a racial discrimination case against one of the giant electronics companies.

Watanabe says the Second Tokyo Bar Association is actually the most progressive: "They work mainly for undocumented workers." But Watanabe's advice to one Canadian financial advisor in a dispute with her gaijin boss may be the best you'll hear anywhere about settling a legal dispute: "Make evidence."

Lawyers and the national government are the most potent avenues for taking action against a company, or an employee for that matter, if your case is well-documented, clear-cut and has finances at stake. If you just want to explore the severity of your case or are open to conciliation, Tokyo Metropolitan Governments' Labor Administration offices are best.

"We're mediators," said Masaomi Kaneko, the Chief of Labor Consulting. He spoke from his home late at night because h~ never has time at the main City Hall office in Shinjuku. "We have no legal power, but 83 percent of our 30,000 cases a year get solved."

How do they get such capitulation? "The law suggests that an amicable basis is the best way to settle disputes," Kaneko said. That's all? "Most people rely heavily on official workers." Nothing more? "Well, we have general meetings and . . . If a company is a bad influence, well...." Well? "We release the company's bad reputation to other government officials for health permits, taxes, police." No legal power?

"We should be neutral," Kaneko admits. And although the Labor Administration's office refers other available avenues, it is illegal for them to recommend attorneys. Watanabe, on the other hand, is no attorney but he knows the ropes. He confides, "Tokyo's metropolitan government labor union is in close contact with us. If they have a foreign worker's case, but can't resolve it, they introduce me. I can help."

Yet many people merely want to have consultation in their native tongue, to understand their options, or to dump their indignation in a caring lap. The volunteer services and telephone lines that offer some solace to people are mostly a community referral service by foreigners for foreigners. They are kind people, looking in big notebooks of accumulated knowledge to guess what's right for you.

As one phone line volunteer put it, "We're information booths for the lost."

"It's fashionable now to help needy foreigners," chides Ken Joseph, who started the Japan HelpLine, first in Los Angeles (for Japanese abroad), then Tokyo. Joseph, who was born in Japan, or one of his staff, carries an NTT-supplied portable phone 24 hours a day. Their contact numbers are on IBM-supplied computers, but they call each other to consult constantly. He laughs, "It's all image in Japan."

"Many of the volunteer organizations are only an illusion," Watanabe says, "because it's so difficult to find multi-lingual people who are willing to help."

But then, Watanabe says the same thing about his future plans, "not focusing only a dream, a mirage, and an illusion." He is chuckling.

"I want to retire next year, to go and learn more about foreign countries' labor movements. A kind of sabbatical leave for two or three years to study and teach at a Labor Institute in Detroit or Toronto," he says putting his hands on top of his head. Watanabe's real name, Tsutomu, is written in a kanji character with two pronunciations, but one meaning: Ben -- to study.

"Then I will return to organize a different sort of institute - a Foreign Labor Documents Institute," Watanabe declares. "Now, information coming to Japan about labor issues from around the world just gets thrown out. So my friends and several scholars are preparing this idea for a research center. But I am notorious," Watanabe grins, "so a more neutral way must be found."

It's a case of dream vs. reality perhaps, but Watanabe has already left his mark on Tokyo. The government offices assisting foreigners, the lawyers advocating human rights and the volunteers helping each other are all hearing a voice that Watanabe has heard since the 50s.

It was only a whisper then, but he heard it clearly -- and loud.