Workers must fight against layoffs

By Kazuo Kojima, Mainichi Shimbun, Friday 17 December 1999

Workers of the world, unite! proclaimed Karl Marx, in a heartfelt appeal to the proletariat.

But here in Japan it seems as though the cry is increasingly falling on deaf ears.

The heady days of unionism are long gone, and in recent years, tens of thousands of the nation's workers have been sacked under the guise of restructuring, or risutora in Japanese.

Yet those very companies that savagely slashed their work forces have enjoyed a surge in share prices.

At the same time, the number of people killing themselves also shot up in 1998 by nearly 35 percent from the previous year to about 33,000. Many of those who committed suicide were working-age men who were victims of company restructuring.

Kiyotsugu Shitara, the general secretary of the Tokyo Managers' Union, a union for company administrators based in Tokyo's Shinjuku-ku, said that now is the time for workers to stand up and go into battle against their employers.

Working for a company is one means of making a living, certainly, but it's definitely not something worth dying for, said the 58-year-old Shitara.

He said that more and more people who have been laid off have been knocking on the union's door.

We have at least four people a day visiting our office seeking some kind of help, and the phones never stop ringing, said Shitara, who is a seasoned activist since his student days.

The union deals with all kinds of risutora-related problems, such as sackings, demotions or nonpayment of salaries and retirement allowances.

According to Shitara, how-ever, there has been a large rise in the number of complaints from those who claim that their companies have been using underhand methods in an attempt to get them to quit.

The reasons for the use of such methods are simple.

A company must pay hefty compensation if it sacks an employee, but if a worker submits their resignation for ‘personal reasons,’ the company is not obliged to fork out such expenses, Shitara said. And many companies are ready to do whatever they can to corner those who are considered surplus to requirements and make them submit rather than endure the foul treatment heaped upon them.

In one prime example of the lengths to which some are prepared to go, a company set up a training center in a far-off part of the countryside for middle-echelon managers who refused demands to retire early.

The managers had to go through lectures deemed fit only for elementary school pupils, and were forced to go into the mountains to do logging, and when it rained they weren't given any protective clothing, Shitara said.

The union, however, urges beleaguered workers not to play right into companies' hands by offering to resign.

We will support to keep or win back their employment, or, in worst-case scenarios, help the workers to get the best possible compensation deal. But workers themselves must be prepared to stand up for their own cause.

Shitara is furious at the situation where companies that made astronomical profits during the speculative bubble economy are able to get away with it and are making their employees pay the price in the process.

Many executives argue the U.S. economy revived thanks to thorough restructuring, but will aping the United States solve the problem here? Shitara asked.

He is also frustrated at the tame attitude and feeble efforts of current trade unions.

Back in 1960, nationwide labor disputes triggered by the dismissal of 1,278 coal miners from Miike mines in Fukuoka Prefecture almost brought the whole economy to a standstill.

Nonetheless, today's trade unions barely squeak when several thousand workers are made redundant from a single company, as in the example of Nissan Motor Co. which is trying to slash its group companies' work forces by over 20,000.

Many in-house unions prefer the dismissal of say, 10,000 workers out of a total of 50,000, if it means survival for the majority, Shitara said.

But not all blame lies at the door of the companies. Sometimes workers are also to blame.

Shitara believes that the attitudes of many workers are wrong. Instead of keeping their tails firmly between their legs and acquiescing quietly, they should stand up and say: ‘You can't do that Ghosn (Carlos, Chief Operating Officer of Nissan), because if you do you'll have a fight on your hands.’

Shitara is convinced that economic difficulties and company restructuring will continue for at least several years, and urges workers to be independent from their companies and relax more.

Those who devote their all into their companies are more likely to kill themselves after their dismissal, because many of them feel as if they were rejected as worthy human beings, Shitara said.

Think of it this way. If your company won't give you anything to do, then enjoy it because your employer is paying your salary for doing nothing. But if you are sacked, then fight with all your might to reverse it.