No. 6 (Feb. 2001)

The Organization of Foreign Workers in Japan: A Case Study of the Kanagawa City Union

by Koichi Ogawa, Tokyo Metropolitan Government Labor and Economic Affairs Bureau, Labor Administration Division, and translated by John McLaughlin

I. Introduction

1. Purpose

When we began our team research project(1) on "the organization of foreign workers in Japan" in August 1995, we had the following understanding: Foreign workers started rapidly pouring into Japan after the sharp appreciation of the yen from 1985 and there started to be heated debates in Japan about these newcomer foreign workers as a social problem. However, most of the debate was over how to reduce or avoid the friction caused by this influx of foreign workers. As a result, most of the research on foreign workers in Japan has been about working and living conditions, which investigate the external living conditions of foreign workers. However, we can say that none of this research has showed an interest in how foreign workers have appeared on the stage as agents for their rights who, with the cooperation of Japanese movements, have begun to make their own movement.

We would like to present here our research on the foreign workers trade union movement, including in particular the thoughts and actions of Japanese leaders, foreign organizers and activists, the process of forming unions, the organizational structure and the day-to-day running of the unions. We would then like to propose what kind of developments are possible for these unions and use this paper as an opportunity to reflect on what the mainstream Japanese labor movement has overlooked about this problem.

2. Participants in this study

We began this study by surveying five unions organizing foreign workers: NUGW Tokyo South, Kanagawa City Union, Zentoitsu Workers Union, NUGW Union Tokyo and Osaka General Union. As a result of this preliminary survey, we identified two contrasting types of unions: An "A Type" of general workers union, composed primarily of Britons and North Americans who are organized into branches by workplace, and a "B Type" of community union, organizing primarily Asian workers. We chose one representative union of each type and focused our research on them. At present, the branch we are studying in NUGW Tokyo South is still in a dispute and it will be reported on later. After this report on Kanagawa City Union, I will discuss more generally about community unions organizing foreign workers.

II. Kanagawa City Union (KCU)

As of spring 2000, KCU has about 900 members, of which 630 are foreign nationals. Out of the foreign membership, 280 are Latin American, 230 are Korean, 50 are Iranian, 30 are Filipino, 20 are Indians and the remaining 20 are from other countries. KCU is run by an executive committee of 12 people, including one foreigner, who meet once a month. There are 6 paid staff members (one of whom is a foreigner) and the staff also meet once a month. KCU retains several paid interpreters, including three who speak Korean, three who speak Spanish, and one who speaks Farsi. For English interpreting, it relies on the Yokohama Catholic Diocese' Solidarity with Migrants (SOL).

1. Labor consultation and organizing activities

As for the number of labor consultation cases KCU has handled each year (that is, based on a consultation, the person joined KCU, which negotiated a case on his or her behalf with the company), in the year since it changed its name to Kanagawa City Union in 1991, there were over 100 cases, after 1992 there were 200 or more cases annually, and in 1999, more than 300. The reasons for such an active consultation record are as follows: first, in dealing with dismissals, unpaid wages and work-related accidents, foreign workers, especially those without work visas, not knowing how to assert their rights and, other than letting the matter drop, have found that joining a union is their only recourse.(2) Secondly, KCU has welcomed many foreigners, supported them in their disputes and helped them gain many rights, which is one form of empowerment for them.

2. Features of organizing

KCU's organizing activities have the following features:(3)

(1) Involvement with difficult problems that already existing unions do not bother with

The main symbol of this is KCU's willingness to get involved in campaigns for the rights of foreign and women workers. The union is involved with various problems concerning work and living conditions for foreign workers in Japan, beginning with problems affecting them as workers such as dismissals, unpaid wages, work-related accidents and sexual harassment and going on to other problems such as traffic accidents, housing and other livelihood issues, to human rights problems such as racially-motivated violence, health and welfare problems, and visa problems. Also, as the result of a four year-long struggle against Kawasaki City, which was employing large numbers of female workers as temporary workers under the wrong or fictitious names, KCU won a huge victory of working conditions by getting all of these workers enrolled in health and social insurance, establishing a system of paid leave, health examinations, revising their bonus pay, establishing severance pay upon retirement and raising wages.

(2) In dealing with this great variety of problems, KCU has received support from its parent union, the Japan Shipbuilding and Machinery Workers' Union, Kanto Local Council. (hereafter referred to as the Shipbuilders' Union), from the local labor movement in Kanagawa Prefecture and is actively pursuing networking with citizens' groups and NGOs.

a) Leaders and activists in KCU.

KCU Secretary M was originally dispatched as an organizer from the Shipbuilders' Union. The Shipbuilders' Union has supplied many experienced organizers in addition to Secretary M. Also KCU has networked with many foreigners' support groups and Christian groups who have also supplied activists with an interest in human rights, discrimination and environmental problems.

As for the local labor movement, we can give the example of how, through its contacts with the Shipbuilders Union, KCU has effectively made use of the human and cultural resources of organizations such as the Kanagawa Occupational Health and Safety Center and the Minatomachi Clinic in its work-related accident disputes.

Since the time KCU was formed, the number of work-related accident consultations involving foreign workers has been between 40 and 60 almost every year. Of these cases, 60% have been serious accidents involving long-term disability, but in 75% of them the company neglected proper procedures for reporting it, and in 30% of cases, companies have fabricated accident reports, submitted false or fictitious names and embezzled worker's compensation money.

i) Experience and know-how from industrial accident disputes

Secretary M is the main person negotiating with companies and he himself had the experience of a protracted dispute to have an industrial accident injury recognized in order to receive compensation, so he has made use of his personal experience and know-how in negotiating with a company and the Labor Standards Inspection Office(LSIO)(4).

ii) Links with NGOs

Linking with NGOs which are strong on industrial accidents such as the Kanagawa Occupational Health and Safety Center (KOHSC) and the Minatomachi Clinic have been extremely effective for resolving industrial accident disputes. In fact, members of KCU overlap with the KOHSC and the Minatomachi Clinic which, together with the Shipbuilders' Union, make a powerful local force to contend with. So it is natural that KCU has been especially well-equipped to handle industrial accident consultations.

iii) Pursuing corporate responsibility

In trying to solve industrial accident disputes, KCU does not just stop at having them officially recognized by the government; it goes after companies to take full responsibility for them. Many foreign industrial accident victims become permanently disabled, so the official compensation is inadequate. Furthermore, there are many shocking cases involving the fabrication of reports, submission of false names and the embezzlement of compensation money. A special feature of KCU's pursuit of companies is that it sets its own terms for settling a dispute because it knows how much other unions have settled similar cases for and asks for an even greater amount, so KCU is pushing up the amount of industrial accident settlement.

iv) Pursuing the government's responsibility

The union fights against the Labor Standards Inspection Office to take responsibility for ignoring or even condoning cover-ups, false reports and embezzlement in industrial accident cases. When a company does not follow the LSIO's administrative guidance, it is behaving in a doubly socially irresponsible manner and one of KCU's strongest weapons in pursuing a settlement is to put social and governmental pressure on a company.

v) Settlement through putting social pressure on a company

When KCU cannot settle a case through collective bargaining with a company, it uses the mass media, holds day-long actions or participates in larger joint actions with other unions. It freely uses all of these measures, including campaigns or administrative guidance, in order to put social pressure on a company to pursue a settlement.

vi) Contribution to finances and organizing

One important aspect of these industrial accident disputes is their contribution to KCU's finances and organizing. Most of the industrial accident victims who visit KCU for consultations are Koreans who work for subcontractors at construction sites. As the Labor Standards Law recognizes the responsibility of the original contracting employer for work-related accidents in the construction industry, KCU's industrial accident disputes have turned into campaigns against the contracting company. Foreign workers, who have received large compensation settlements through KCU, have made substantial donations to KCU, which in turn has made possible the hiring of organizers and interpreters which has then, in an upward spiral, enabled KCU to solve even more cases and receive more donations.

b) Close, mutual cooperation with SOL

Since SOL (the Yokohama Catholic Diocese' Solidarity with Migrants Center) does not have the right to bargain collectively, it relies on KCU's rights and negotiating abilities as a union to help solve cases involving difficult labor problem. On the other hand, SOL has rich human resources as a church organization, so the union is supported by SOL's staff members, who conduct initial screenings and provide interpreting for consultations. We can say that the two groups have established a functionally dependent relationship.

Other unions organizing foreign workers may have difficulty keeping contact with the foreign worker community but KCU has a big pipeline to them through SOL as a church organization, which is also how it has become involved with various problems affecting foreign workers.

c) Linking up with "specialty shops" for dealing with specific problems

Besides its links with NGOs such as the KOHSC and the Minatomachi Clinic for handling industrial accidents and occupational illnesses, KCU is able to settle disputes through links with other NGOs dealing with domestic violence, sexual harassment and other specific problems. For example, since KCU is not so good at dealing with problems as sexual harassment and domestic violence, it deals with such problems through its links with a nearby women's NGO, Mizura, which has a rich knowledge of and experience in solving these problems. And since Mizura does not have the right nor the experience and know-how to bargain collectively with companies, it gains greater power by working with KCU. KCU and these NGOs supplement their weaknesses in solving specific problems and make use of each other's know-how and human resources.

d) Day-long actions

A special feature of KCU's organizing tactics is its involvement in day-long rounds of protests. These days of action have the following characteristics: 1) they are broad-ranging (they are centered around protest demonstrations aimed at companies which refuse to bargain collectively) and include hooking up with other joint solidarity or struggle actions, such as those against the worsening of the Labor Standards Law and the Immigration Control Law, as well as campaigns for compensation for atrocities committed in WWII; 2) they happen frequently, about 50 or 60 times per year; 3) many members are mobilized to attend them, especially foreign workers (anywhere from 30 to 60 foreign workers attend every time, making up about 80% of the protesters; about 40% are Korean).

Above all, KCU thinks of these day-long actions as a means to settle a dispute. When a company refuses collective bargaining or negotiations break down, KCU pursues corporate responsibility by turning it into a social problem through holding rallies and other protest actions outside companies and factories. Secondly, KCU judges how interested a foreign worker is in solving his or her own problem by whether he or she participates or not in these day-long actions. KCU is not just a union which represents foreign workers in solving their problems, but it is a labor union through which foreign workers can assert and ascertain their rights themselves. Therefore, it takes up their problems on the assumption that they have the necessary will and desire to fight.

Through these day-long actions in which a large number of foreign workers participate, KCU has continued to be a big force in the local community, which tends to lose interest in social issues such as foreign workers' problems. Also, through mobilizing its members for these day-long actions and networking in various forms, it has established a big presence and influence inside various movements.

(3) Using the media

In all angles of its negotiations with employers and public officials, KCU has made effective use of the mass media. Using the media has been one link in its strategy to put social pressure on companies and pursue the negligence of government officials. One reason why KCU has been taken up often by the media is that the problems it is dealing with are sensational ones that offend common decency. However, even though they are sensational, that does not mean that the media will continuously take them up. In order for that to happen, second of all, one needs to develop trust and know how to court the media (by providing materials, briefing them, and working behind the scenes). Previously, KCU's parent union and the KOHSC have accumulated a lot of experience doing this.

3. Administration of the union

KCU is run efficiently by its Japanese organizers. In that sense, foreign members are basically recipients of union services to resolve their workplace troubles and at the same time are only passively mobilized to take part in actions. However, because KCU is a kind of social movement union which strives to protect both the labor rights and livelihood of foreign workers, the organization should be run more democratically by members who have equal rights and standing in the union. Because most of KCU's members are foreigners, it is not easy for the organizers to establish relations of equality with its foreign members, so there exists an inherent contradiction that is hard to eliminate, namely that foreigners are represented only vicariously.

4. Union finances

Although three-fourths of KCU's financial base is unstable and dependent on donations to it by members after negotiating a settlement, it is still rather well-off compared to other community unions. One reason is that most of the problems foreign workers bring to KCU are resolved financially and it is rare that members return to their workplaces after a dispute is over. In these cases, the settlements are rather big and so are the donations, in which members donate about 15% of their settlement money to the union. Secondly, because there are not many workplace branches, it is nearly impossible to collect dues from union members on a continuous, stable basis. Most KCU members are individual affiliates and moreover, undocumented, so their residencies change often and it is hard to maintain contact with them in order to collect union dues.

III. Current Issues

1. Problems in the administration of KCU and organizing workers

KCU's organizing tactics are based on "last resort" consultations(5), which are nothing more than a means of getting the right to collective bargaining and bringing in union members. Even if we call these foreign workers union members, they are nothing more than service recipients and cannot be called active subjects in their own movement. KCU's practical and pragmatic method of conducting labor consultations and running the union by organizers on behalf of the memberhsip, in which the executive committee members conduct consultations with the workers and the Secretary handles all of the negotiations, is an effective way of handling and solving large numbers of consultations. However, we can hardly say that the union is cultivating the ability of its foreign membership to realize its rights as workers by forming solidarity relations at work and expanding their autonomy by organizing other workers themselves. The biggest problem KCU has to overcome is how to make the running of its affairs more democratic for the members by reforming its organizational structure and empowering them to organize workers at their own workplaces.

2. Limitations of the labor consultation process

(1) Problem of "last resort" consultations

Of course, helping workers to solve their problems through "last resort" consultations is of great significance in that it enables the union to grasp the conditions and problems of unorganized workers in order to organize them. However, most settlement s are just financial settlements and when workers then formally quit their jobs, organizing at that workplace ends.

(2) The deficiencies of strategic organizing

We can only say that the system of "last resort" labor consultations as the only means of organizing workers, especially part-timers and small enterprise workers and, as a way of targeting workers in the local labor market, is a weak organizing strategy. It is necessary to cooperate more with academic and independent researchers to analyze the local economy and data gained from these "last resort" consultations in order to focus on organizing targets and concentrate the investment of financial and human resources. Also, the union needs to have a strategy to reform local politics and economies by reviving busineses, to organize workers doing socially needed work, and demand that companies which do business with local governments pay fair wages and guarantee working conditions protected under ILO Convention 9, which Japan still has not signed.

3. Mobilization of workers

Participation in the day-long actions certainly cannot be seen as coming from the voluntary actions of foreign workers themselves. To the foreign workers, participation in these day-long actions are a way of showing their will to fight together with KCU to solve their labor dispute, much like a fumie(6) in times past. However, regardless of their motivations for participating in these day-long actions, their awareness as workers may change through their participation in them. In this case, we need to understand the meaning of day-long actions participated in by foreign workers. When there are no interpreters, for example, and foreigners just go along with the actions, not understanding their purpose, it probably has a detrimental effect on foreigners own willing participation in union activities.

4. Changing from a "Northern Winds" strategy

The "Northern Winds" strategy refers to the principle of not compromising with the company in order to fulfill all the union's demands and pursue corporate responsibility, which is KCU's basic approach. On the other hand, the "Southern Winds" approach refers to the inevitable compromises made by a union in order to establish industrial relations with an employer and keep union members in a workplace although the union still pursues the company's responsibility. In most cases, when taking a "Northern Winds" approach, in order to go after management, the relations of trust necessary to establish industrial relations with employers are not made and the union members inevitably have to quit the company. At present, in organizing Latin American workers of Japanese descent, KCU is changing its direction and is in the process of establishing branch unions in workplaces. The key to determining whether KCU can develop as a real union in the future is whether these workplace bases can be maintained and expanded so that KCU can secure a stable financial and organizing base.

5. Attempts at international labor solidarity activities

Many labor unions have engaged in international labor exchanges and solidarity activities from long before, however, they have basically been at the level of union officials and activists of the same tendencies engaging in exchanges and solidarity actions across national borders, not involvement in a global workers movement to directly oppose the movement s of capital. KCU, on the other hand, conducts regular international exchanges and solidarity actions within Japan. For example, Korean members of KCU support court cases and campaigns seeking compensation for atrocities committed during WWII(7) as well as with Korean unions visiting Japan to gain support for their struggles against Japanese companies there, so they are a big force and encouragement of these struggles. Until now, there has not been much international solidarity action between foreign workers in Japan and workers in their home countries. Also, we can say that participation by former Korean members of KCU who go back and help at the "Migrant Workers House" for foreign workers in Korea is one attempt at overseas solidarity actions. Moreover, KCU has regular exchanges with Korean labor unions and this is a major effort at developing new relations between Japanese and Korean unions. These kinds of grassroots solidarity activities by KCU can probably become a cornerstone of international solidarity by unions to resist the global movement of capital. Anyway, a major issue for KCU is how the foreign workers it organizes can develop relations with the labor and social movements in their home countries.

Appendix 1. Community Unions

1. The Establishment of Community Unions

Traditionally, the majority of unions in Japan have been enterprise-based unions whose membership has been limited to full-time employees of the company. Due to changes in the industrial structure such as the decrease in employment in highly organized sectors such as manufacturing, transportation and communication and the increase of employment in tertiary industries such as the service, wholesale and retail sectors as well as changes in employment forms such as the rapid increase in part-time and temporary agency workers, the estimated labor organization rate of the main sector of full-time company employees has fallen from 34.4% in 1975 to 28.9% in 1985 down to 22.2% in 1999.

Community unions begin in 1983 with Union Higoro (Osaka) and in 1984 with Edogawa Union (Tokyo) as a new trend for establishing unions based in communities which members could join as individuals. At that time, the leftist Sohyo labor federation was showing itself to be at a dead-end and the front-line of the labor movement was substantially reconfiguring then. Community labor activists were trying to create a new type of labor union based on individual affiliation and different from unions based on the workplace unit. After overcoming several barriers, community unions developed into unions which could respond to the voices of workers living in local communities who were put in unstable, irregular forms of employment. By 1999, 95 unions had joined a National Community Union Network, representing more than 14,000 workers and in September 2000, it held its 12th annual national exchange meeting.

2. The Activities of Community Unions

What community unions have in common is that while they try to realize and improve workers rights at workplaces, they are also trying to create communities workers can live in. Whether full-time or part-time, male or female, Japanese or foreign, regularly abled or otherly abled, young or old, they are trying to form workplaces and communities in which they all can live together.

The activities of community unions vary according to the local area and membership composition. Each independent community unions has its base in labor consultations as a community union and has developed unique activities tailored to this population base. For example, they are pouring lots of energy into initiatives such as cooperative movements by running natural food shops, also delivering pre-cooked natural foods meals to elderly people in the community and at workplaces, running community soup kitchens and clinics deeply rooted in the community and establishing their own cooperative enterprises to supply dispatch and home care workers.

These various community unions which are based in Hokkaido, the Kansai, Kyushu, Hyogo and the Tokyo area have formed a national network to tackle common issues. For example, they have coordinated and carried out nationwide labor consultation campaigns on the problems of dispatch workers and foreign workers, the revisions of the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Law in 1990 and 1999, revisions of the Dispatch Workers Law in 1996 and 1999, also scoring such victories as getting their proposed amendments to bills and supplementary resolutions passed by the Diet. Moreover, in 1993, by carrying out a survey of part-time workers and distributing a leaflet on this issue nationwide, they were a great force in getting an amendment passed to the Part-Time Labor Law. The National Network of Community Unions was also the main force behind the formation of an Earthquake Victims Union in 1995 when members poured into the Kobe area to help out with emergency labor consultations held by local community unions right after the Great Hanshin Awaji Earthquake.

3. Issue Facing Community Unions

(1) Securing a financial base through membership

The biggest problem facing these unions is how they can become more independent financially and human resource-wise, given that these community unions were born from local labor movements which have undergone a restructuring(8) and are now in retreat. All of these unions are facing the circumstance of being financed mainly by members' dues and donations and fill in their deficits through donations from settling labor disputes. Some unions do not function only as labor unions and are trying to organize workers as residents by forming workers production collectives, consumer cooperatives and their own clinics in order to establish a financial base.

(2) Job creation movement

The movement by unions to create their own businesses, production collectives and cooperatives is very meaningful for community unions. They are establishing a new focus for the local movement by equating workers and consumers and by doing things themselves through workers cooperatives and enterprise collectives, which combine the labor movement with enterprise in such areas as producing, processing and distributing safe foods, and health, welfare and the environment. By organizing and administering socially needed labor and creating new ways of working, they are reviving workers' rights to self-determination of their lifestyles and to define the social meaning of their work.

(3) Creating networks

Community unions have developed networks by cooperating with NGOs and local residents and fighting together with them on issues such as local peace, environmental, women's, foreigners and human rights campaigns, although primarily staying involved with labor consultations and solving labor problems. These actions by community unions are breaking down the walls put up between workers and local residents. For example, although it can be noted that the original community unions were based in the community union movement that is now in retreat, through exchanges with activists on human rights, the environment, disabled people and women's issues, community unions are now forming and expanding as part of local citizens' movements which are carrying out various kinds of consultations.

(4) KCU and community unions

KCU is affiliated with the National and Tokyo Community Union Networks and is a powerful member in them. KCU has thought of starting its own labor dispatch service since many KCU members are Latin Americans of Japanese descent(9) and is now refining its consultation and organizing activities. This is also probably because the union is in an area which already has a strong consumer cooperative movement and workers health collectives like the Minatomachi Clinic. In any case, community union activities vary based on the local area and the membership composition and the unions develop into independent ones suited to the situation in each area.

(Note: All Japanese names are rendered with the surname first.)


  1. The research team is composed of six members: Araya Yukie, Ogawa Koichi, John McLaughlin, Takasu Hirohiko, Tanahara Keiko and Totsuka Hideo. This paper is based on discussions we have had together but the author is responsible for all of the opinions expressed here.[back to the main text]

  2. Under Japanese law, there is no system for exclusive collective bargaining, but a labor union can bargain collectively for any of its members, so that even if there is only a small minority union or just one members in the union, it can bargain with the company on their behalf. The very fact that community unions such as KCU can act as unions owes a lot to the Japanese labor law. Furthermore, the Japanese labor law applies to all workers in Japan, in principle even undocumented ones.[back to the main text]

  3. Not only KCU but other amalgamated types of community unions have the traditional pattern of organizing when a problem occurs between organizers and employers, so a person joins a union in order to solve that problem, which is the so-called "last chance" form of organizing. As for unions which take on labor consultations, it is through having a worker join the union that it is able to bargain collectively with a company. The right to demand collective bargaining is guaranteed under the law (meaning that the union has a right to demand collective bargaining and if there is no legitimate reason for refusing this by the management, the union can appeal for help with unfair labor practices, so for unions this is a big weapon for getting companies to the negotiating table. In almost all cases, the worker who has come to the union for a consultation has no intention of going back, so once the problem is solved there is only a slight chance that the person will remain in the union. In this case, the union takes on the role of representative for the worker and negotiates with the company on his or her behalf in order to improve working conditions or resolve some trouble. KCU organizes through activities such as this.[back to the main text]

  4. Every prefecture in Japan has a Labor Standards Inspection office which certifies accident reports and decides on the amount of compensation to be paid by worker's accident compensation insurance.[back to the main text]

  5. Translator's note: The author refers to kakekomi uttaegata roudou soudan, which literally means last resort appeal type of labor consultation. Kakekomi is a term which goes back in history to temples which sheltered wives escaping their husbands and seeking divorce and is used to describe the last minute rush onto a train before the doors close.[back to the main text]

  6. Fumie refer to painted pictures (-e) of Jesus and other Christian icons that feudal Japanese officials required Christian converts to step on (fumi-) to renounce their faith and show their loyalty to feudal lords during a time of crack-down on Christianity, which was brought to Japan from the 15th century by Portuguese missionaries.[back to the main text]

  7. The main campaigns in Japan have concerned forced labor in factories or mines by former imperial subjects, military sexual enslavement of foreign women.[back to the main text]

  8. Translators note: The Japanese labor movement as a whole experienced a reorganization in the late 1980s when two competing national centers were dissolved and three new national labor federations were formed: Rengo is the largest federation with 8 million members; Zenroren, has over a million members and close ties with the Japan Communist Party; Zenrokyo is another left-leaning federation of under a million members, primarily public workers in the Tokyo area, but also including most of the unions organizing foreign workers.[back to the main text]

  9. Translator's note: Under Japanese immigration policy since 1990, long-term resident visa's which enable foreign nationals to engage in any kind of work can be issued to people of Japanese descent down to the third generation and their immediate family members.[back to the main text]

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