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 places limitations on 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. 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. While the government implemented a streamlined system for firefighting personnel to provide opinions and input to managerial staff in April, this system continues to deny the personnel the right to organize.
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 organizing 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 union activities.
The government effectively enforced laws providing for freedom of association, collective bargaining, and legal strikes. Government oversight and penalties were generally sufficient to deter violations. In the case of a violation, a worker or union may lodge an objection with the Labor Committee, which may issue a relief order for action by the employer. A plaintiff may then take the matter to a civil court. If the court upholds the relief order and determines that a violation of that order has occurred, it may impose a fine, imprisonment, or both.
The government and employers generally respected freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining, but the increasing use of short-term contracts undermined regular employment and frustrated organizing efforts. Collective bargaining was common in the private sector.
b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor
The law prohibits all forms of forced or compulsory labor.
Violations persisted and enforcement was lacking in some segments of the labor market, such as in sectors where foreign workers were employed. In general, however, the government enforced the law effectively. Legal penalties for forced labor varied depending on its form, the victim(s), and the law that prosecutors used to prosecute such offenses. Not all forms of forced or compulsory labor were clearly defined by law, nor did all of them carry sufficient penalties to deter violations. For example, the law criminalizes forced labor and prescribes penalties of up to 10 years’ imprisonment, but it also allows for 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.
Indicators 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 these jobs experienced restrictions on freedom of movement and communication with persons outside the program, nonpayment of wages, excessive working hours, high debts to brokers in countries of origin, and retention of identity documents, despite government prohibitions on these practices. Workers were also sometimes subjected to “forced savings” that they forfeited by leaving early or being forcibly repatriated. For example, some technical interns reportedly paid up to one million yen ($9,200) in their home countries for jobs and were employed under contracts that mandated forfeiture of those funds to agents in their home country if workers attempted to leave, both of which are illegal under the TITP. The Organization for Technical Intern Training (OTIT) oversees the TITP program, including conducting on-site inspections of TITP workplaces. OTIT increased its workforce, including hiring new inspectors, but labor organizations continued to cite concerns that OTIT is understaffed, insufficiently accessible to persons who do not speak Japanese, and ineffective at prosecuting labor abuse cases.
Also see the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.
c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment
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 sufficient to deter violations.
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. The law 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 law prohibits gender-based discrimination in certain circumstances, including recruitment, promotion, training, and renewal of contracts, but it does not address mandatory dress codes.
The law also mandates equal pay for men and women; however, the International Labor Organization noted the law’s protection against such wage discrimination is too limited because it does not capture the concept of “work of equal value.” Enforcement regulations of the equal employment opportunity law also include prohibitions against policies or practices that were adopted not with discriminatory intent but which have a discriminatory effect (called “indirect discrimination” in law) for all workers in recruitment, hiring, promotion, and changes of job type. Women, however, continued to express concern about unequal treatment in the workforce, including sexual and pregnancy harassment. Women’s average monthly wage was approximately 73 percent of that of men in 2018.
The law included provisions to obligate employers to treat regular and nonregular workers equally when 1) the job contents are the same and 2) the scope of expected changes to the job content and work location are the same. The labor law revisions related to equal pay for equal work go into effect in April 2020 for large companies and in 2021 for small and medium enterprises (SME).
The women’s empowerment law requires national and local governments, as well as private-sector companies that employ at least 301 persons, to analyze women’s employment in their organizations and release action plans to promote women’s participation and advancement. Revisions to this law passed in May, which expand the reporting requirements to SMEs that employ at least 101 persons and increase the number of disclosure items, go into effect in 2021.
In response to government agencies overstating the number of their employees with disabilities to meet statutory hiring requirements in 2018, the government revised the law in June. The revisions included new preventive provisions, including a requirement for verification of disability certificates to ensure the job candidate’s disability. In August the MHLW released its statistics showing nearly 40 percent of government institutions missed hiring targets for persons with disabilities. 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 law requires a minimum hiring rate for the government to be 2.5 percent and for private companies to be 2.2 percent. By law companies with more than 100 employees that do not comply with requirements to hire minimum proportions of persons with disabilities must pay a fine per vacant position per month. There is no penalty for government entities failing to meet the legal minimum hiring ratio for persons with disabilities. Disability rights advocates claimed that some companies preferred to pay the mandated fine rather than hire persons with disabilities.
In cases of violation of law on equal employment opportunity, the MHLW may request the employer report the matter, and the ministry may issue advice, instructions, or corrective guidance. If the employer does not follow the ministry’s guidance, the employer’s name may be publicly disclosed. If the employer fails to report or files a false report, the employer may be subject to a fine. Government hotlines in prefectural labor bureau equal employment departments handled consultations concerning sexual harassment and mediated disputes when possible.
e. Acceptable Conditions of Work
The law establishes a minimum wage, which varies by prefecture and allows for earnings above the official poverty line.
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. It mandates premium pay of no less than 25 percent for more than eight hours of work in a day, up to 45 overtime hours per month. For overtime of between 45 and 60 hours per month, the law requires companies to “make efforts” to furnish premium pay greater than 25 percent. It mandates premium pay of at least 50 percent for overtime that exceeds 60 hours a month. The grace period for SMEs exempting them from paying 50 percent for overtime that exceeds 60 hours a month will be abolished in April 2023.
For large companies the law caps overtime work and subjects violators to penalties including fines and imprisonment, conditions that will be extended to SMEs in 2020. In principle overtime work will be permitted only up to 45 hours per month and 360 hours per year. Even in the case of special and temporary circumstances, it must be limited to less than 720 hours per year and 100 hours per month (including holiday work), and the average hours of overtime work over a period of more than two months must be less than 80 hours (including holiday work). The law also includes provisions to introduce the Highly Professional System (a white-collar exemption), which would eliminate the requirement to pay any overtime (including premium pay for holiday work or late-night work) for a small number of highly skilled professionals earning an annual salary of more than approximately 10 million yen ($92,000). 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 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 MHLW is responsible for enforcing laws and regulations governing wages, hours, and safety and health 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 law provides for a fine for employers who fail to pay a minimum wage, regardless of the number of employees involved or the duration of the violation, and provides for fines for employers who fail to comply with applicable OSH laws.
Penalties for OSH violations included fines and imprisonment and were generally sufficient to deter violations. While inspectors have the authority to suspend unsafe operations immediately in cases of flagrant safety violations, in lesser cases they may provide nonbinding guidance. MHLW officials acknowledged their resources were inadequate to oversee more than 4.3 million firms and that the number of labor inspectors was not sufficient to deter violations.
Reports of OSH violations in the TITP were common, including 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.).
Falls, road traffic accidents, and injuries caused by heavy machinery were the most common causes of workplace fatalities. The MHLW 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.
In May the Diet passed a set of labor law revisions requiring companies to take preventive measures for power harassment in the workplace and creating additional requirements for companies to prevent sexual harassment. The revisions go into effect in April 2020, making it mandatory for large companies and an “obligation to make efforts” for SMEs.