Marathon discussion with Ministry of Labor

Marathon discussion with Ministry of Labor

The Japan Occupational Safety and Health Resource Center (JOSHRC) had its first substantial talks with Labor Ministry officials on December 17, 1997 and on March 20, 1998, over a total of six hours.

In the era of Sohyo (the General Council of Trade Unions of Japan), its OSH section-the Japan Workers Safety Center, and other organizations affiliated with the aggressive national trade union center established a route through which the labor unions brought their demands to the Government. However, when Sohyo was dissolved into another trade union confederation in 1990, the Center was also brought to an end, resulting in a kind of vacuum in the area of workers health and safety. Although the biggest umbrella organization, Rengo (Japanese Trade Union Confederation), has insisted on the necessity of setting up a successor to the previous Japan Workers Safety Center, it is not apparently willing to put into practice its admirable argument. Since 1990, Rengo has failed to reestablish a major pathway through which their demands are incorporated into government policies. In this sense, the JOSHRC talks with officials of the Labor Ministry represent the first significant attempt to develop a permanent scheme within which grassroots demands for safe and healthy working environments challenge the policy-makers. The importance of these sessions with the Labor Ministry is illustrated by the fact that as many as 40 officials attended the talks. Probably they hoped that the talks would help recover the lost route from which they had previously heard the voices of workers.

JOSHRC posed approximately 50 questions or demands, which were comprehensive and extensive. Among them, we indicated especially the compensation gap between victims in private and public sectors. The actual compensation benefits for victims in the private sector are generally poorer than those for their counterparts in the public sector-that is municipal or government workers. During the talks we demanded that the compensation level for private workers be raised to the same level as that for public workers. The officials, however, did not seem to realize the seriousness of the gap, partly because the Labor ministry does not administrate the public workers accident compensation system.

Secondly we pointed to the extremely negative attitude of the Labor Ministry toward disclosing information. In fact, they will not disclose the processes through which the official criteria for occupational diseases are developed, nor the evidence needed to support such criteria. The Labor Ministry has a persistent tendency to implement even the most important policies under the form of circulars, which are not required to be presented to the Diet for deliberation. These shadowy manipulations increase its discretion and influence, while protecting the ministry from public criticisms. At the talks we asked the officials whether they have any criteria for disclosing information. Their response was no!-meaning that they arbitrarily determine which documents should be disclosed or not !

The third demand is also related to the openness of the Ministry. We demanded that the Ministry make public the medical or scientific evidence for the actual criteria for certifying various occupational diseases. For example, it is widely known that the criteria for karoshi (sudden death from overwork) is unreasonably restrictive, and is severely criticized as deviating from social common sense. However, the officials only replied that they had consulted experts before the criteria were determined, without presenting any evidences or the names of their experts. The process of developing occupational disease criteria-which in themselves are very controversial-should not be kept confidential, we believe.

This attitude is true of the policies that the Ministry implements for hazardous materials. As for the carcinogenecity of crystalline silica, which had been determined by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), they repeated that the material is under consideration for possible revision to actual pneumoconiosis-related regulations, without presenting any evidence-based arguments. Fourthly we asked them how they intend to address the accident cover-ups which are carried out throughout the industry in order to avoid inspections by regulators, and increases in insurance premiums. In fact several Prefectural Medical Associations, which include medical practitioners have indicated in their report on the accident cover-up problem, that there are increasingly serious cover-ups involving whole companies. The Social Insurance Agency, the Ministry of Health and Welfare-affiliated organization administering the governmental insurance for private injuries and diseases, estimates that the Agency makes payments annually for 60,000 cases of injuries and illnesses which are probably occupational, totaling up to Y2.0-2.2 billion. The officials, however, did not seem to consider these prevailing practices to be serious, although many victims are refused adequate compensation benefits.

As stated above, the marathon talks with the Labor Ministry revealed its "closed-mindedness" and lack of sensitivity which undermine workers' rights. Also these tendencies are illustrated by the proposed revision of the Labor Standards laws to allow an employer to introduce a discretionary job arrangement system, which might force employees to arrange their work as if they are contractors. All the trade union confederations, including Rengo, oppose this system, which undermines workers' rights and status. On the other hand, it should be noted that many officials attended these talks with JOSHRC to explain their policies, and hear critical viewpoints from the labor side. With these talks as a starting point, we will continue to talk with the Ministry in order to effectively bring our grassroots experience and demands into the government's decision-making processes.


Japan Occupational Safety and Health Resource Center (JOSHRC)
Z Bldg. 5F, 7-10-1 Kameido, Koto-ku, Tokyo 136-0071, Japan
FAX: 81-3-3636-3881