FY 2019 International Symposium

panel discussion

 JILAF held an international symposium on November 22 on the theme of “The Future of Labour Contracts and Protection of Workers’ Rights.” Speakers included trade union representatives from the United Kingdom and Germany who were visiting Japan as participants in the Special Invitation Team in the JILAF Invitation Program, as well as a representative of employers in Germany and an official from RENGO (Japanese Trade Union Confederation). The symposium was attended by a total of 52 people, including representatives from Japanese trade unions, companies, government offices, and media.

After an opening address on behalf of the organizers by JILAF Director General Takao Yasunaga, the speakers presented reports from their respective standpoints.

The speaker from the United Kingdom reported on the state of workers in insecure jobs in that country. In the United Kingdom, workers with insecure jobs, excluding fixed-term employment contract workers, account for more than 10% of the working population. Such workers include zero-hours labour contract workers, whose contracts do not stipulate working hours and who work only when there is work, and low-wage self-employed people who support the platform economy.* The number of workers in the latter category especially is rapidly increasing. The scope of these own-account workers, it was explained, is widening to include not only unskilled labour but also skilled work and professional occupations. In response, trade unions are demanding fair wages and the guarantee of minimum rights for such workers. Since these demands are included in the manifesto of the Labour Party, trade unions are supporting a change of government in the general election scheduled to be held on December 12. Trade unions are sharing information in workplaces via social network services, implementing street campaigns, and making efforts to organize migrant workers, many of whom are engaged in such workstyles.

The speaker from Germany noted that due to the loss of workplaces and expansion of new ways of working brought about by technological innovation, coupled with the changing composition of the population, we are in an age of major confusion. Nevertheless, the government has not come up with any clear strategy in response. Although technological innovation should be used to realize better jobs and a fair society, the speaker said with concern, the situation is moving in the opposite direction.

As specific examples of new workstyles brought about by technological innovation, the speaker mentioned mobile work, artificial intelligence, and platform work* and outlined the state of progress and problems. In particular, regarding platform work, which is rapidly expanding, the speaker explained that most of these workers were bogus self-employed people unable to make their own decisions about jobs and working hours. The protection of their rights as employed workers is inadequate, the speaker said, and most of them wish to switch to regular employment status. The tendency of society as a whole to emphasize economic efficiency is giving rise to various kinks for workers. To protect the rights of these people, the speaker proposed, trade unions must call for the establishment of a legal environment, investment in and training of human resources, educational strategy, and the building of a systemic qualification system.

In addition, regarding the impact on workstyles of digitalization and other technological innovation, starting with the issue of gender, the speaker went on to suggest that such innovation may strengthen the right of workers to decide for themselves and propose that workers should enhance demands for improvement of the problem of inequality. Examples of labour agreements were cited as a practicable approach toward the settlement of these problems.

The speaker also expressed the view that to establish the right of self-determination by workers (the right to decide working hours, place of work, etc. by themselves), the establishment of a legal framework for new ways of working is essential.

The speaker representing German employers, meanwhile, said that in an age of rapid technological innovation, changing demographic conditions, and volatile international competition, small and medium-sized manufacturing companies were required to change their corporate culture in order to survive. As business organizations, the speaker stated, they had to make efforts to accept change by, for example, utilizing infrastructure for collaboration, promoting the participation of their diverse work force, which is their most important asset, in management, and enabling cooperation transcending regions and levels in order to get closer to customers.

The Japanese speaker introduced the results of a survey on quasi-employment workstyles. Regarding the deciding of contracts “after discussions by both parties” and the “written specification of contract terms” at the time of concluding the contract, more than half of the respondents replied in the affirmative, but there were also occupations in which more than half of the respondents said there was no “written specification of contract terms.” In addition, regarding the frequent outbreak of trouble involving contracts, while respondents said that more than half of the cases had been “All settled,” the ratio fell to around 40% for “Compensation not paid or unilaterally reduced,” “Own proposal used without permission,” and others. The speaker also reported that for “Suffered harassment, such as sexual or power harassment,” nearly half of respondents replied “Not settled at all.”

Furthermore, regarding working under their present contracts, the speaker reported that respondents had cited such problems as “Unstable and low income,” “Don’t have unemployment insurance to cover me if I lose work,” and “Don’t have industrial accident compensation to cover me if I get injured or sick due to work” as negative factors. Their demands for the future included written specification of contract terms and the establishment of consultation services to turn to in times of trouble.

RENGO plans to engage in wide-ranging activities to appeal to various quarters, centering on the three goals of expanding worker status, preventing bogus contracts, and improving protection of the rights of self-employed contractors as well as employed workers. RENGO also wishes to promote collaboration with other countries experiencing similar problems.

After the country reports, a panel discussion was held, with the speakers replying to questions from the floor. JILAF Director General Takao Yasunaga served as moderator.

The questions were wide-ranging. Regarding technological innovation and protecting the rights of workers, after a basic understanding of the need to promote a healthy balance, discussions focused on such matters as efforts to protect the rights of workers through organization, the importance and responsibility to conduct human resource investment in response to technological innovation, and top-priority issues to protect the rights of workers engaged in ambiguous jobs.

Since all three countries are in the midst of major change and in the process of working out basic countermeasures, the symposium participants recognized the importance of deepening mutual collaboration from now on.

Finally, JILAF Executive Director Masayuki Shiota ended the symposium by saying, “A basically people-centric philosophy and human resource development are important in the response to digitalization and other technological innovation. Moreover, the foundation for tackling these problems is sound industrial relations and partnership between labour and management. I hope that through repeated social dialogue we can realize a coexistable society.”

*Platform work (economy): Generally speaking, platform work refers to work in which individuals or organizations solve other people’s problems or supply services based on digital platforms. An economy formed by businesses utilizing this base is called a platform economy.