Japanese labor unions under COVID-19

February 25, 2021 [No.84 - 2020]

Mr. Suzuki Fujikazu,
Coordinator, Research Center for Solidarity-based Society



Japanese labor unions under COVID-19

Part 1. Government-labor-management cooperation in response to COVID-19


The slogan of turning threats into opportunities is advocated sometimes as a way of being ready for a crisis. It is true that positive thinking with an eye toward the post-crisis situation, rather than a passive approach, is necessary to overcome a crisis. The seeds of possibilities for overcoming the crisis may exist within the changes the crisis itself brings about. Today, amid the crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic, labor unions in Japan are both mobilizing the past experiences of the labor movement, seeking to maintain and improve employment and workers' livelihoods, and taking on the challenges of seeking new styles for the movement suited to the new reality. From this perspective, this article will attempt to review labor unions' responses to COVID-19, focusing chiefly in the activities of the Japanese Trade Union Confederation (JTUC-RENGO).


1.    The pandemic as the greatest threat to the JTUC-RENGO vision of "a Secure Society based on Work"


In its 2019 general meeting, JTUC-RENGO adopted the social vision of "a Secure Society based on Work" and identified the following three initiatives as pillars of its activities to realize this vision.


 (1)  Passing along and growing the movement, and taking on the challenges of change

 (2)  Promoting participation in the movement and extending it across society

 (3)  Practicing proactive social dialogue


The COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 is a crisis faced by the movement in the first fiscal year of this JTUC-RENGO vision. It would be no exaggeration to say that putting into practice the movements philosophy is itself the best way to control the spread of this infectious disease, which is the greatest threat to a secure society, and protect employment and workers' livelihoods from the social and economic threats brought about by the pandemic. Since JTUC-RENGO's activities are focused not only labor-management relations at the level of individual firms and industries but on dialogue and consensus-building between employers and government at a macro level covering all of Japan, or at a regional level, practicing social dialogue is particularly important. In fact, among the 89 main activities of JTUC-RENGO related to its response to COVID-19 in 2020, nearly one-half (42 activities) were in this category of social dialogue.


2.    Social dialogue as a response to COVID-19


Let's review briefly the content of social dialogue as a response to COVID-19. A look at dialogue with government first of all shows that on February 26, 2020, the Japanese government requested the cooperation of labor-management organizations (JTUC-RENGO, KEIDANREN [Japan Business Federation], the Japan Chamber of Commerce and Industry, and DOYUKAI [Japan Association of Corporate Executives]) in areas such as measures to stop the spread of COVID-19 and improvements to working environments, based on the government's Basic Policies for Novel Coronavirus Disease Control. This effectively was the starting point of government-labor-management dialogue on COVID-19.


On the other hand, JTUC-RENGO's requests to the government, "Urgent requests regarding temporary closure of elementary, junior high and high schools for measures against COVID-19," was handed to Mr. Suga, Chief Cabinet Secretary on March 4, 2020, which included requests to secure safe places for children whose schools were closed temporarily so that their parents could work with peace of mind, to provide support for micro-, small, and medium-sized enterprises, and, at the same time, to consider income assistance programs for freelance workers and others with similar forms of employment and to take into consideration cases such as layoff of foreign workers. This perspective of focusing policy responses on those who bear the brunt the crisis most strongly, such as micro-, small, and medium-sized enterprises, those in ambiguous employment relationships, and foreign workers, continued in the March 9, 2020 "Requests on Maintaining and Securing the Whole Supply-Chain," issued to the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry and the Small and Medium Enterprise Agency, and the requests to the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare based on the April 1, 2020 "Urgent Proposal on Comprehensive Measures Against the Spread of COVID-19 Infection." In the area of exchange of opinions with government, four labor-policy dialogues were held between JTUC-RENGO leaders and the Minister of Health, Labour and Welfare, Special Advisors to the Prime Minister, and government policymakers between July and October 2020. These included exchange of opinions on topics such as the state of compliance of each industry with the guidelines for individual industries on preventing the spread of COVID-19 and work-style issues under the "new normal" of COVID-19, intended to reflect in policy decisions the views of workers active in the field.


Next, in the area of social dialogue with employers’ organizations and similar parties, first of all on March 13, 2020 a colloquium was held with the National Federation of Small Business Associations and a joint dialogue on worsening of employment conditions under the COVID-19 pandemic was announced. Next, after the state of emergency announced on April 7, 2020 for seven prefectures was expanded nationwide on April 16, a web conference was held on April 20 between JTUC-RENGO President Kozu and KEIDANREN Chairman Nakanishi. In this conference, Chairman Nakanishi stated, "Numerous times in the past Japan has been able to overcome various national challenges through labor and management working hard together. In this case as well, we need to overcome this global challenge through labor and management cooperating to transform our behavior. President Kozu, in response, declared, "I would like us to affirm that both KEIDANREN and JTUC-RENGO will continue cooperating on environmental improvements to ensure that today's message will reach throughout the supply chain and to diverse workers. Later, on May 12, an exchange of opinions was held with the Japan Federation of Labor and Social Security Attorney's Associations, whose members were tasked with practical operations in the program of employment adjustment subsidies, confirming the intention to cooperate to encourage use of that program to maintain employment. Then, on December 22 a conference was held among top leaders of JTUC-RENGO and DOYUKAI, in which opinions were exchanged on work styles and human resources in the age of living with COVID-19 and the post-COVID world.


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