June / July 2010

June-July Letters

HR advocacy: another perspective
The “Advocacy at Work” cover feature in the April/May issue of BCCJ ACUMEN had many misconceived notions about the labour market. Some attitudes implied a degree of contempt for the millions of highly educated, dedicated, hard-working Japanese employees who stay late in the office without complaining, and rarely take vacations or go on strike.
Firstly, the underworld has penetrated many areas of society, not just unions, most of which are moderate, law-abiding and necessary to redress the huge imbalance of bargaining power in favour of corporations. This is why they are backed by the rule of law in the form of the Constitution and the Labour Union Act. Managers in savvy firms actually encourage employees whose jobs are under review to take legal advice and consult their union.

Secondly, as a labour-relations counsellor, I have never heard of former employees joining a union and fighting a former employer, and I don’t believe unions would support it.
Thirdly, the labour market here is not the cosy workers’ paradise parts of the article imply. Lifetime employment never covered more than about 20 percent of the workforce. Moreover, there are millions of “working poor” employed at just above the minimum wage on short-term labour contracts who have virtually no job security.

Fourthly, corporations have all the power. They may legally terminate an employee at short notice, and the rules for restructuring layoffs, both humane and logical, are well defined in case law (not “vague” as Kazuki Okada claims). The few courageous employees who challenge layoffs in court rarely get far, even with good grounds, because there is such pressure put on them by the courts (especially in Tokyo), families, friends and the legal profession to settle for a modest payoff rather than reinstatement.

Lastly, I believe it is misguided to say an influx of unskilled foreign workers into already crowded cities would have a “positive impact”. Japan is such a pleasant place to live partly because it is mono-cultural, with few racial and ethnic tensions, and no linguistic barriers. Importing large numbers of unskilled workers by enforcing a dogma of diversification would invite disharmony. Japan needs skilled foreign workers who speak Japanese and accept its positive core values, not unskilled ones who cannot communicate in the local language and have little to contribute. I believe a moderate pace of managed immigration, so that the host country and immigrants have time to get used to each other, is the answer.

Tim Marrable
Barrister (England & Wales), CFA
Representative Director
First Line K.K.