Current Situation and Challenges of Occupational Safety and Health Activities in Japan (Report of Japan Center for Safety and Health of Working People Regarding the Fourth Item on the Agenda the 93rd International Labour Conference)

Development of Activities of National and Local Centers
for Health and Safety of Working People to Foster a New
Current in the Labor Movement in Japan

By Shin'ya Yamada

1. Significance of the Establishment of the Japan Center for Health and Safety of Working People

      The Japan Center for Health and Safety of Working People (JCHS) was formed on December 15, 1998, with expectations from many working people toward it. General Council of Trade Unions of Japan (Sohyo) had set up a Japan Center for Workers' Safety in 1989. Yet due to the dissolution of Sohyo, the center was closed. In the following ten years, no organization similar to that center existed in Japan. The inauguration of the JCHS filled this vacancy, and this newborn center stands on a new idea and democratic management.

      In 1990's, the Japanese government adopted policies to help companies increase their competitiveness. These policies include easing of regulations imposed on companies by the labor laws, more freedom and discretion to companies, hands-off to excessively long working hours, introduction of an arbitrary working system, expansion of labor leasing, increase of night work, and transfer of workers with dismissal in view, and on-the-spot discharge. Supported by these policies, companies are pushing ahead with the harsh restructuring plans. For workers, this means deprivation of their freedom to live at their own will, and a great threat to their life and health. This emergent situation was an important factor that encouraged the establishment of the JCHS. The inauguration of the JCHS marks a starting point of a new movement to realize workers' demands. It is a counter move to the above mentioned anti-worker policies of the government and companies. It also represents workers' demand that their life and health be placed at the basis of politics and the economic administration.

      The international economic competition has grown into a storm, which is raging throughout the world.

      The workers of the world constructed social systems and customs based on the respect for workers' human rights. The storm of competition is ready to blow away such achievements. It is going to deteriorate labor conditions, destroy the social security, and drive workers into a critical situation about their health and safety. It will undermine in fact the international labor standards set out by the ILO one after another.

      Such a situation tells workers that they cannot find a way out of it without solidarity with workers all over the world. In establishing the JCHS, Japanese workers pledged to promote solidarity with workers of the world. The ILO Bureau of Workers' Activities, World Federation of Trade Unions, International Federation of Trade Unions, France CGT and Center of Indian Trade Unions and others sent solidarity messages to the inauguration of the JCHS. These messages were a great encouragement to Japanese workers.

2. Cooperation between the JCHS, Regional and District Centers

      The JCHS are composed of organizations and individuals. Its member organizations include the National Confederation of Trade Unions (Zenroren), active neutral unions, local centers for health and safety of working people, organizations dealing with labor accidents and job-related diseases, and Japan Federation of Democratic Medical Institutions. Individual members are experts of medicine, laws, economics, engineering and safety and health, medical practitioners and lawyers, etc.

      The JCHS board of directoars consists of thirty-eight members who have engaged in protection of safety and health at workplaces, relief activities for labor accident victims or workers suffering from job-related diseases and the prevention of such accidents and diseases. They belong to trade unions covering such areas as the press, publishing, printing, education, public services (state and municipalities), transportation, communication, broadcasting, chemical, metal, medical, construction, welfare, commerce, self-employment and agriculture. They are also members of labor accident victims' organizations, Japan Federation of Democratic Medical Institutions, lawyers' organizations and nine local centers for health and safety of working people.

      The Board is now discussing a way for experts representing different fields to work together according to their specialties.

      The lineup and background of organizations and individuals composing the Board clearly show that the JCHS aims to carry out original activities. This stance makes a clear contrast with the conventional style of the trade union movement.

      Local centers for health and safety form a nationwide network. In cooperation with the national center, JCHS, local centers will play a key role in elevating activities at local level. Local centers are at work in Japan's northernmost part Hokkaido, the industrial areas and main cities on the coasts of the Pacific and Inland Sea, and in prefectures in Japan's southern most Kyushu Island. They are planning to foster smaller-scaled centers in cities.

      Being in-house unions is considered as a serious weak point of Japanese trade unions. In the activity to protect workers' life and health too, they think it important to take this weakness into account. They are planning not only to reinforce the national and local centers, but also to develop many district-based centers throughout the country.

3. Workers and Trade Union Movement and the Role of JCHS

      The movement for protecting life and health of Japanese workers has some important tasks.

      First is to strengthen the activity of committees on labor safety and health at workplaces and a nationwide united struggle. The work of committees on labor safety and health at workplaces has a special importance from the historical point of view. It must be noted that the national protest against the terrible disaster at Miike Mine in 1963 led to the enactment of law for establishing such committees at workplaces.

      This activity aims to build up a grass root movement concerning safety and health at workplaces. It is to make use of creativity of each worker. This activity has two goals. One is to achieve the conclusion of a labor agreement at each company and each industry to humanize working conditions. The other is to get the achievement in such efforts reflected in the revision of the Industrial Safety and Health Law, so that improved labor conditions will benefit all workers. The most urgent task that requires united efforts is to regulate overtime and night work. To this respect, it is also important to promote arrangement and enactment of domestic laws in Japan for the adoption and ratification of the ILO international labor standards.

      Second is to claim administrative judgement to get compensation paid to the victims of labor accident and job-related diseases. In case of this claim being rejected, it is necessary to bring the matter to court to hold the company concerned and the state responsible for the payment. The standards for and the way of recognizing labor accidents and occupational diseases are extremely unfavorable to workers. A nationwide "Karoshi Hot Line" (Karoshi means death from overwork) opened by the cooperation of lawyers, medical doctors and trade unions received many complaints. The activities of JCHS and local centers have stimulated workers and their families to ask for administrative judgement or to bring their cases to court to realize their demands. Their demands, of course, include official recognition of and compensation for "karoshi," overwork-related suicide, on-the-job injury and occupational diseases caused labor accidents and job-related diseases.

      It is noteworthy that many activists of industrial safety and health have grown out of the victims' relief activities.

      Third is to promote a united struggle by task among a broader range of the Japanese people.

      Hospital nurses are suffering from excessive night shifts. They are calling for the regulation on the night work. This demand has won support from citizens who call for the betterment of public medical service. Their united efforts achieved the enactment of the law on securing nurses.

      Teachers are also troubled with diseases and psychotic depression due to the tremendous burden of educational work. Teachers' activity to protect labor safety and health has brought about cooperation with parents of the pupils. Because, these parents are also under a heavy pressure from society and their children are in an abnormal state of mind in their school life.

      Retired workers' demand for better medical treatment and elderly people's demand for the improvement of the nursing care insurance scheme are growing. Their movement to realize the demands has attracted the attention of middle-age workers in every locality, and cooperation is developing among all.

      The damage of dioxin contamination spreading out in various places has brought municipal employees and residents together in their efforts to eliminate the damage.

      It is indeed of a great significance that all this cooperation and united struggles have raised awareness of solidarity between such workers and citizens.

      Forth is the united efforts in the district. Unorganized workers are concentrated in small- and medium-sized enterprises, making up 75 percent of the total labor force. These workers are in serious conditions, frequently hit by accidents and diseases, which in many cases result in disability or ill health. The companies would even discharge these victims.

      The self-employed that have been supporting the life of local residents are now forced into bankruptcy by the undisciplined advancement of large-scale retail stores. This has resulted in the increase of the self-employed becoming ill or committing suicide.

      In both cases, it is important for finding solution to the problem to start working to have influence upon the companies, municipalities and central governments. For this, a united struggle of workers and the self-employed in the district is indispensable.

      For the development of these activities mentioned above, the role of the JCHS and local centers is extremely important.

      The first role of these centers is to provide information on the actual conditions and analysis of labor and workers' health; workers' efforts; and the attitude of the government and companies toward industrial safety and health. In the past six months after its inauguration, the JCHS has issued six monthly newsletters and two quarterlies. Local centers are also carrying out similar informative activities.

      The second role is the promotion of education and the training of activists. In June 1999, they held study seminars on industrial safety and health in East Japan and West Japan. Local centers are also active in sponsoring courses.

      The third role is to provide opportunities of exchange of various activities concerning industrial safety and health and relief of labor accident victims. Local centers are active in carrying out many programs on different tasks on their own initiatives. On October this year we are going to have a national big event to exchange their experience.

      The fourth role is theoretically to dig into the analysis of the situation and the action policies of the movement. It is also important to get the results of such works reflected in setting tasks of the movement, in raising questions to society and in making political proposals.

      To this respect, a joint research with experts is important. On the question of industrial safety and health, we set up two task forces, on night duty and shift work, and on the international industrial safety and health. As for the question of labor accidents and job-related diseases, we started two task forces, on "karoshi" and on the administrative judgement and judicial precedents on labor accidents and occupational diseases. These task forces are open to the public. Further research activities are necessary for us, making proposals on tasks to be tackled based on the analysis of actual working and health conditions; improving the industrial safety and health system and related laws to humanize the labor; making a better preventive and relief system for occupational diseases; proposing common tasks for the Japanese people; promoting the establishment of international labor standards based on the ILO conventions and recommendations.

      The fifth role is to plan for promoting cooperation with experts of broad areas, to enrich the study, research and practical activities.

      Sixth and lastly, the JCHS and local centers have a significant role in expressing opinions and making political proposals to society. They have already proposed the way the labor administration should be. They also started negotiations with the authorities on the centers' participation in the councils on the labor standards and workers' accident compensation administrations.

4. Expectations for International Solidarity

      To promote international exchange and solidarity of the movement to protect workers' life and health is an important part of the JCHS's plans. The message of the ILO Workers' Activities Bureau to the inauguration of the JCHS expressed expectations for our center establishing solidarity not only at home but also with workers' movements in the developing countries. France CGT proposed to work jointly in the prevention and relief activities for the victims of labor accidents and occupational diseases, as well as in the industrial safety and health activity.

      The whole world faces today such a harsh "streamlining" in the name of restructuring resulting from the international economic competition. For many countries it is difficult to satisfy the international labor standards set out by the ILO conventions and recommendations. The impact of such a situation is particularly serious on life and health of workers in the developing countries. We are at a time that workers of the world must strengthen more than ever exchange cooperation between them and make plans for united activities. The JCHS started working on this task with the neighboring country; it opened exchange with the South Korea's "Foundation for Occupational Diseases of Wonjin." It is planning to start exchange with France CGT, which has already on the list, and broader range of workers' organizations all over the world. We expect to receive information from various countries. Let us promote solidarity to make the 21st century a century of workers!

      The author is a member of Rodo-Soken Board of Directors, Professor Emeritus of Nagoya University and Director General of Japan Center for Health and Safety of Working People.