Section 7. Worker Rights
a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining
The law provides for the right of private-sector workers to form and join unions of their choice without previous authorization or excessive requirements and protects their rights to strike and bargain collectively.
The law restricts the right of public-sector workers and employees of state-owned enterprises to form and join unions of their choice. Public-sector employees may participate in public-service employee unions, which may negotiate collectively with their employers on wages, hours, and other conditions of employment. The International Labor Organization continued to raise concerns that the law restricts some public-sector employees’ labor rights. Public-sector employees do not have the right to strike; trade union leaders who incite a strike in the public sector may be dismissed and fined or imprisoned. Firefighting personnel and prison officers are prohibited from organizing and collectively bargaining.
Workers in sectors providing essential services, including electric power generation and transmission, transportation and railways, telecommunications, medical care and public health, and the postal service, must give 10 days’ advance notice to authorities before conducting a strike. Employees involved in providing essential services do not have the right to collective bargaining.
The law prohibits antiunion discrimination and provides for the reinstatement of workers fired for legal union activities.
The government effectively enforced laws providing for freedom of association, collective bargaining, and legal strikes. Government oversight and penalties were commensurate with those for other laws involving denials of civil rights. Collective bargaining was common in the private sector.
In the case of a rights violation, a worker or union may lodge an objection with the Labor Committee, which may issue a relief order requiring action by the employer. If the employer fails to act, a plaintiff may then take the matter to a civil court. If a court upholds a relief order and determines that a violation of that order has occurred, it may impose a fine, imprisonment, or both.
The increasing use of short-term contracts undermined regular employment and frustrated organizing efforts.
b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor
The law prohibits all forms of forced or compulsory labor. The law, however, does not expressly define what would constitute forced or compulsory labor, allowing for prosecutorial discretion when pursuing such cases.
Although the government generally effectively enforced the law, enforcement was lacking in some sectors, especially those in which foreign workers were commonly employed. Legal penalties for forced labor varied depending on its form, the victim(s), and the law used to prosecute such offenses. Some were not commensurate with those for other analogous serious crimes. For example, the law criminalizes forced labor and prescribes penalties of up to 10 years’ imprisonment, but it also allows for moderate fines in lieu of incarceration. NGOs argued that reliance on multiple and overlapping statutes hindered the government’s ability to identify and prosecute trafficking crimes, especially for cases involving forced labor with elements of psychological coercion.
Indications of forced labor persisted in the manufacturing, construction, and shipbuilding sectors, primarily in small- and medium-size enterprises employing foreign nationals through the Technical Intern Training Program (TITP). This program allows foreign workers to enter the country and work for up to five years in a de facto guest-worker program that many observers assessed to be rife with vulnerabilities to trafficking and other labor abuses.
Workers in the TITP experienced restrictions on freedom of movement and communication with persons outside the program, nonpayment of wages, excessive working hours, high debt to brokers in countries of origin, and retention of identity documents, despite government prohibitions on these practices. The Organization for Technical Intern Training oversees the TITP, including conducting on-site inspections of TITP workplaces. The organization maintained its increased workforce, including inspectors, but labor organizations continued to cite concerns that it was understaffed, insufficiently accessible to persons who do not speak Japanese, and ineffective at identifying labor rights violations.
c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment
The law prohibits all the worst forms of child labor. Children ages 15 to 18 may perform any job not designated as dangerous or harmful, such as handling heavy objects or cleaning, inspecting, or repairing machinery while in operation. They are also prohibited from working late night shifts. Children ages 13 to 15 years may perform “light labor” only, and children younger than age 13 may work only in the entertainment industry.
The government effectively enforced these laws. Penalties for child labor violations included fines and imprisonment and were commensurate with those for other analogous serious crimes.
Children were subjected to commercial sexual exploitation (see section 6, Children).
d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation
The law prohibits discrimination with respect to employment and occupation based on race, national origin, color, sex, ethnicity, disability, and age, but it does not explicitly prohibit discrimination with respect to employment and occupation based on religion, sexual orientation or gender identity, HIV-positive status, or language. The government effectively enforced the applicable laws, and penalties for violations were commensurate with similar laws related to civil rights, such as the Public Offices Election Act.
The law prohibits gender-based discrimination in certain circumstances, including recruitment, promotion, training, and renewal of contracts. It does not address mandatory dress codes. The law imposes some restrictions on women’s employment. The law restricts women from performing certain tasks in underground mining as well as work that requires lifting very heavy objects or spraying 26 specified hazardous materials such as polychlorinated biphenyls. Additional restrictions apply to pregnant women and those who gave birth within the prior year.
The law mandates equal pay for men and women; however, the International Labor Organization viewed the law as too limited because it does not capture the concept of “work of equal value.” A private-sector survey of more than 24,000 companies in July showed the proportion of women in corporate managerial posts rose to a high of 8.9 percent. Women’s average monthly wage was approximately 74 percent that of men in 2020. The equal employment opportunity law includes prohibitions against policies or practices that have a discriminatory effect, even if unintended (called “indirect discrimination” in law), for all workers in recruitment, hiring, promotion, and changes of job type.
Women continued to express concern about unequal treatment in the workforce, including sexual and pregnancy harassment. The law does not criminalize sexual harassment, but the equal employment opportunity law requires companies to take measures to prevent it; asks companies to report incidents if they occur; and offers administrative advice, instructions, or guidance.
When a violation of equal employment opportunity law is alleged, the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare may request the employer to report the matter, and the ministry may issue advice, instructions, or corrective guidance. If the employer fails to report or files a false report, the employer may be subject to a fine. If the employer does not follow the ministry’s guidance, the employer’s name may be publicly disclosed. Government hotlines in prefectural labor bureau equal employment departments handled consultations concerning sexual harassment and mediated disputes when possible. The Labor Ministry portal regarding harassment in the workplace showed, for example, that there were 87,670 cases of power harassment, 7,323 cases of sexual harassment, and 2,131 cases of maternity harassment reported to the prefectural labor consultation centers in 2019.
In June, a year after the implementation of a revised law requiring companies to take measures to prevent power harassment and sexual harassment in the workplace, the Japanese Trade Union Confederation conducted a survey of 1,000 working men and women between the ages of 20 to 59 (not including corporate executives, entrepreneurs, or the self-employed) that showed limited progress. According to the survey, approximately one-third of workers had experienced some type of harassment in the workplace. Approximately 40 percent said their employer took no action when harassment occurred, and 43 percent of that group told no one because they thought it would not help.
In October 2020 the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare released a survey of 1,000 male and female graduates from universities or vocational schools during fiscal years 2017-19 on sexual harassment during their job search and internship. Overall, 25 percent of the respondents experienced sexual harassment; 9 percent reported being forced to have sexual relations. When asked what they did after the sexual harassment, 25 percent said they did nothing, and almost 8 percent said they gave up on the job search process.
The law mandates that both government and private companies hire at or above a designated minimum proportion of persons with disabilities (including mental disabilities). The government hiring rate is 2.5 percent; for private companies it is 2.2 percent. By law companies with more than 100 employees that do not hire the legal minimum percentage of persons with disabilities must pay a moderate fine per vacant position per month. Disability rights advocates claimed that some companies preferred to pay the mandated fine rather than hire persons with disabilities. There is no penalty for government entities failing to meet the legal minimum hiring ratio for persons with disabilities.
e. Acceptable Conditions of Work
Wage and Hour Laws: The law establishes a minimum wage, which varies by prefecture but in all cases allows for earnings above the official poverty line. The government effectively enforces the minimum wage.
The law provides for a 40-hour workweek for most industries and, with exceptions, limits the number of overtime hours permitted in a fixed period. Violators may face penalties including fines and imprisonment commensurate with those for similar crimes.
Labor unions continued to criticize the government for failing to enforce the law regarding maximum working hours; workers, including those in government jobs, routinely exceeded the hours outlined in the law.
The Ministry of Labor conducted 24,042 on-site workplace inspections of workplaces they had reason to suspect excessive overtime was taking place during fiscal year 2020 (April 2020 to May 2021). It found violations at 8,904, or 37 percent of workplaces. The Ministry of Labor provided the violators with guidance for correction and improvement.
Workers employed on term-limited contracts, known as “nonregular” workers, continued to receive lower pay, fewer benefits, and less job security than their “regular” colleagues performing the same work. Most women in the workforce were employed as nonregular workers. The law requires employers to treat regular and nonregular workers equally when the job contents and the scope of expected changes to the job content and work location are the same. This law went into effect in April 2020 for large companies and in April 2021 for small- and medium-size enterprises.
Occupational Safety and Health: The government sets occupational safety and health (OSH) standards. Workers may remove themselves from situations that endanger health or safety without jeopardy to their employment.
The Ministry of Labor is responsible for enforcing laws and regulations governing wages, hours, and OSH standards in most industries. The National Personnel Authority covers government officials. The Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry covers OSH standards for mining, and the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport, and Tourism is responsible for OSH standards in the maritime industry.
The government effectively enforced OSH laws, and penalties for OSH violations were commensurate with those for similar crimes. While inspectors have the authority to suspend unsafe operations immediately in cases of flagrant safety violations, in lesser cases they may provide nonbinding guidance. Inspectors have the authority to make unannounced inspections and initiate sanctions. Government officials acknowledged their resources were inadequate to oversee more than 4.3 million firms and that the number of labor inspectors was insufficient to enforce compliance.
Reports of OSH and wage violations in the TITP are common; they included injuries due to unsafe equipment and insufficient training, nonpayment of wages and overtime compensation, excessive and often spurious salary deductions, forced repatriation, and substandard living conditions (also see section 7.b.).
There were 131,156 major industrial accidents in 2020 resulting in the death or injury of workers requiring them to be absent from work for more than four days (802 deaths). Falls, road traffic accidents, and injuries caused by heavy machinery were the most common causes of workplace fatalities. The Ministry of Heath, Labor, and Welfare also continued to grant formal recognition to victims of karoshi (death by overwork). Their former employers and the government paid compensation to family members when conditions were met.
Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare initiatives to prevent accidents and injuries in the workplace include checklists, educational materials, leaflets, and videos on the proper handling of equipment and use of safety gear, and promoting workspaces organized to minimize accidents.