There are a lot of horror stories out there about things that big, bad eikaiwa and other Japanese employers have done to unsuspecting gaijin. You hear about court cases, unfair dismissals, failure to get paid for months. For those reasons, a union has been set up to help workers deal with their employers.
Before I go on, I should point out that I am not a union member and never have been. I didn’t think it was necessary for my short time in Japan and at any rate, I didn’t have the money. But if you’re planning to be in Japan, especially for more than a year, this may be important for you.
The National Union of General Workers has a Foreign Workers Caucus which focusses on any foreign nationals’ labour issues. The focus does tend to be on English teachers but they seem to take on any workers. The General Union is based in Osaka but there is also a Fukuoka branch and the Tokyo Nambu branch.
Looking at these websites, you will find a lot of propaganda. Your employers may shoot off a lot of anti-union propaganda but believe me, the unions are just as guilty of propaganda too. There was one section on the website that amused me – making the ALT program run by organisations like JET seem like a bid for world domination via “soft power”. Read how they go nuts when Margaret Thatcher is mentioned. The front page of the Tokyo Nambu site even displays a picture of the site’s author parading as Che Guevara.
Now, I don’t doubt that there are occassions when unions are necessary to protect workers rights, especially in a country like Japan where there are very few rights given to foreign nationals. And it seems like whenever there’s been a dispute where the union became involved, it usually ended successfully for the employee and the union. But geez, I wish they wouldn’t behave like that while they do it. Couldn’t workers’ rights be protected without resorting to slander and name-calling? The Tokyo Nambu page is a blog/editorial, sure, and just the opinions of one man, but I’d be more inclined to join myself if it felt more like a professional organisation.
It is a legally registered union that has been around for over 30 years. About 60% of the members are in fact Japanese. They have several ongoing disputes, including with NOVA and Berlitz. They are fighting hard to get Shakai Hoken implemented everywhere where necessary and pressure companies to ensure they are following Japan’s labour laws.
So yes, they do good work. They just sound like over-confident, self-righteous university students when they do it.
The General Union in Osaka lists their yearly membership cost as ?36,000. That’s a fair chunk of cash but if you know you’re heading to work at a questionable company, it may be great insurance. Either way, you should always do your own research before making any decisions or taking any actions.