Organizing the Unorganized: A Non-Regular Workers’ Spring Offensive in Japan

Editor’s Note:

One of the most important events in the Japanese labor movement’s calendar is the Spring Offensive. For decades, labor unions have come together during the early spring months to show their collective strength for the purpose of negotiating a wage increase for their workers.

In recent years, however, full-time, unionized workers with secure employment in Japan have declined, while highly casualized, non-regular workers on part-time, temporary or dispatch contracts grew significantly. For the labor movement, the question of how they can organize non-regular workers who are traditionally excluded from the Spring Offensive loomed large.

This year, labor organizers announced a Spring Offensive for Non-Regular Workers. We spoke to Mr. Aoki Kotaro, one of its organizers, about efforts to mobilize non-regular workers and why this is important for revitalizing the labor movement.

We want to thank Mr. Makoto Iwahashi for interpretation. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Asian Labour Review (ALR): Can you introduce yourself? How did you get involved in organizing non-regular workers?

Aoki Kotaro (AK): My name is Aoki Kotaro. I’m the Executive General Secretary of the General Support Union. Unlike major labor unions in Japan which are organized within each company, we organize across all industries, regardless of which company a worker is working for.

Our membership is open to all to join on an individual basis. Unlike those well-off permanent male workers working for major companies who are being organized by major labor unions, we tend to focus on organizing those who have been historically unorganized.

I’ve been involved in the labor movement since 2008 after I saw a huge number of dispatch (i.e. temporary agency) workers being laid off when the global financial crisis hit Japan, and they came to the Ministry of Labor in central Tokyo to protest. The media reported on the poverty and the insecure working conditions of these workers. That’s how I got involved.

ALR: What is the Spring Offensive, and why is it important? In an article, you have also pointed out some limitations of the Spring Offensive.  

AK: The Spring Offensive is a literal translation of a Japanese word that means Spring and Offensive. Each year since 1955, labor unions, which are organized within each company (i.e. enterprise-based unions), have demanded their companies for a pay increase. They all do it at the same time in February and March. Since the Japanese labor unions are organized on an enterprise basis, they would not collaborate or fight together at any other time. But during just this time, all labor unions are demanding a pay increase, a similar percentage of pay increase, at the same time.

But there are limitations. One is that the main demand is pay increase. Everything else such as working conditions and working hours are less important. The second limitation is that even if they win, the percentage of pay increase does not reduce the previous wage gap between major corporations and the mid and small enterprises, and it does not reduce the gap between permanent workers and non-regular workers. And we’re seeing more and more non-regular workers in the current labor market.

From 1955 to 1974, due to labor shortage and strong economic growth, the Spring Offensive won a 10% increase each year. But after 1975, it became about 5%. And then in the late 90s, it dropped to 1%. Since the 90s, real wages in Japan has been decreasing actually. That’s why since 2000s, the Spring Offensive has stopped working in helping workers in any meaningful way, especially as a lot of workers are not unionized. And even if they are unionized, they’re on non-regular work contracts and fall outside of the traditional Spring Offensive demands.

We’re organizing the unorganized. What was good about the Spring Offensive was that it was a way to collaborate with other labor unions and make a common demand. Because of the high inflation and high energy costs, it has become very important for workers to demand a pay increase.

ALR: I want to ask about the conditions of non-regular workers in Japan, and what you see as the main issues.

AK: The number of non-regular workers have been on the rise since the 1990s, and now it consists about 40% of the labor force in Japan. Two-thirds are female workers, and many non-regular workers only make minimum wage.

They could be fired or their contracts may not be renewed at any time. The principle of equal pay for equal work is also absent. Those who are non-regular workers could be doing the same work as those on permanent regular contracts, but they’re not making the same as the regular workers.

The minimum wage in Japan is not a living wage. It’s about 1,060 yen per hour, which is only seven or eight US dollars.

ALR: There are also a lot of part-time student workers and migrant workers. Can you talk about what the conditions are like for them?

AK: Regarding student workers, they are working at supermarkets, restaurants, and chain restaurants. And the reason for them joining us was that the conditions have been getting worse. It had been said that the students could depend on their parents to pay for their tuition and everything that they need. But since the parents’ wages are decreasing, they can no longer depend on them. At the same time, tuition is going up every year. A lot of young workers have gone bankrupt by not being able to repay their student loans.

That’s why a lot of student workers are working now: so that they wouldn’t have to go into economic hardships after they graduated from college. The other reason is that a lot of student workers are being treated as replaceable, and are only paid the minimum wage. The discriminatory wage gap is something that the student workers are angry about.

For migrant workers, there are two groups. One is migrant workers from the U.S. and Europe who work as professionals. It includes a lot of language school workers and English teachers. The working conditions are not very good. They could be fired at any time. Many of these workers are in their 20s and 30s, and have seen the labor movements in their native countries. That’s something that inspires them to join the labor movement in Japan.

The second group of migrant workers are those from other Asian countries. They’re working as so-called technical interns, which has been criticized as slave labor due to the fact that they cannot switch jobs. They’re working in industries where there’s a huge labor shortage because the pay is not high, but the work has to be done by someone. So they pretty much make only the minimum wage; due to high inflation right now, they cannot really make a living. Moreover, since the Japanese Yen is weak currently, they cannot send home as much money as they used to. This is the first time that technical interns have joined the Spring Offensive.

ALR: I know it’s often difficult to organize non-regular workers. How have you tried to organize them?

AK: There have been cases of labor unions trying to organize non-regular workers, but they have not been successful. One of the reasons that non-regular workers joined the Spring Offensive this time was the impact of the pandemic. It affected workers in the service sector, where workers are predominantly on non-regular contracts. For the companies, if they fire these non-regular workers, it would be considered an unfair dismissal.

What they did instead was just let them stay home without pay. So a lot of non-regular workers had been unable to make a living because there was no work. And the companies refuse to compensate them, as they are legally obliged to. A lot of non-regular workers were affected disproportionately by the pandemic.

For businesses still in operation during the pandemic like call centers which employ non-regular workers, there was a high risk of workers getting infected by the virus. We received a huge number of calls and emails from these workers who were concerned about the risk of getting infected. And so we organized struggles against these employers during the pandemic.

Non-regular workers stood up for their rights, demanding compensation and a safer working place. The media and the general public supported the workers. That was probably the first time that the struggle of non-regular workers gained momentum and public support, which encouraged them to do more.

A total of 16 labor unions from the three national federations in Japan (Rengo: Japanese Trade Union Confederation; Zenroren: National Confederation of Trade Unions; and, Zenrokyo: National Trade Union Council), which had not worked jointly in the past, have come together for the Spring Offensive this year. The pandemic pushed them to build a united movement and to demand the same 10% wage increase for both regular and non-regular workers.

ALR: What do you expect to happen next, and which direction is this movement moving?

AK: We’ll get the response to our demand from the companies in early March. Depending on what the companies say, we’re prepared to go on strike and take protest actions. We’d like to continue doing so next year and then from there on make it bigger by organizing more non-regular workers. The movement aims to achieve equal pay for equal work, which had not been established in Japan.

This is a movement of the working class, especially for workers occupying the lower stratum of the labor market. We will build a movement working on the issue of migrants, single mothers, the disabled, and other issues that need to be solved but are never framed as the issue of the working class. This movement can connect all those issues as a common agenda for the working class. This is something we’re demanding. We believe it’s going to revitalize the labor movement.

(Photo: Chris McGrath / Getty)