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Wronged employees seek redress through mediation

Prefectural labor boards offer cheap alternative to suing in work disputes

by Michael Kitamura

Imagine you feel wronged by your employer and find simply sharing your work woes with friends and chat groups inadequate. You want compensation and acknowledgment that your employer acted unjustly.

Suing is not your only option. Prefectural labor boards may hear your case and bring your employer in for reconciliation.

A few years ago I was given a pay cut at my last university for political reasons. I had asked the university president, in a one-page private letter, to consider replacing the Hinomaru Japanese flag flying in front of the university with an Earth flag, partly because the university was always squawking about how international they are, and partly because faculty were invited to share any ideas and concerns with our “open-minded” president. So when he told me the reasons for a 10-percent pay cut included my opposition to the Iraq war, and the “flag letter,” and ended my evaluation meeting wagging his finger saying, “You should love the Japanese flag,” I was shocked, but didn’t know where to turn. Suing seemed a long shot.

Two years later this same president made a dramatic declaration to the faculty, informing us that none of our renewable contracts would be renewed. Instead, we would have to reapply and fight for our jobs via open recruitment.

However, what we didn’t know then was that the directors and several favored faculty members had been “blown kisses” — promised jobs and told to keep the fact secret. When the dust settled, 12 faculty members had just reason to seek compensation for breach of contract, out of whom 10 banded together — all nonunion foreigners — to speak with a local union rep.

Foreigners tend to scatter after losing their jobs, and we were no exception. Of the 10, only three planned to remain in Japan, making legal action even more impractical. And, while unemployed, who would have the resources for legal fees? Thus, I looked at speaking with the union rep more as a counseling session, to have someone knowledgeable listen and give a viewpoint, and perhaps sympathize. Some of the “winners” at my university, for example, implied there had been no breach of contract. Were we exaggerating the injustice?

After listening carefully, however, the union representative flatly stated, “That’s illegal.” Then, even more encouragingly, he told us about a course of action that didn’t involve any lawyers or fees at all: Meetings with a prefectural labor board that could lead to “assen,” meaning mediation or reconciliation.

The first step, which could not be skipped despite the futility of it, was to hold direct talks with the university. It was decided, with the help of the union and labor board, to submit a “yokyu isharyo” (demand or request for compensation) for 5 million yen per person for financial damages endured due to breach of contract.

Then, three dismissed faculty members and two union representatives met with four university staff. When they denied there was any connection between evaluation and renewal — a key point of our dispute — we learned what an uphill struggle we faced.

At the same time, we had concurrently been meeting with the prefectural labor board, because they realized time was limited until we’d have to move from the area. After the university refused to pay at our second meeting — which was predictable — the labor board heard more details. For example, when one faculty member with a doctorate in a Japan-specific field and glowing evaluations asked for the reason for her dismissal/nonrenewal, she was told by the president, “You’ve been in Japan too long.”

The board, in addition to hearing such testimony, also read documents, from contracts to memos, that belied the university’s claims, and led them to decide there was just cause to pursue “assen.”

Four respected members of the community — a corporation president, a university professor, a labor representative, and the head, a lawyer — served as judges to hear both sides of our dispute and suggest a compromise.

A key point to note about the process is that it’s not binding. At any point either party can simply withdraw. That being said, the labor board informed us that the mediators succeeded in solving 80 percent of the labor disputes they heard. Furthermore, the labor rep noted that a university is under tremendous pressure to comply with the decision of an independent third party — especially since the authority behind the mediation process was, in our case, the prefecture, which had bankrolled the university when it opened.

The mediation process is designed to avoid huge winners and losers, so we knew from the start that receiving 5 million yen per person was highly unlikely. At the same time, the mediation process saved us time and money: while court cases may cost millions of yen in lawyer’s fees, and drag on for years, our mediation would last just a couple of months, and cost nothing save transportation to hearings. Furthermore, while all 10 members were encouraged to attend hearings, attendance was not required.

Thus, we dropped any demand for lost salary, which the courts might grant, and aimed for “just” 5 million yen per person. More importantly, we wanted a decision which indicated our university had acted inappropriately, in an effort to curb dictator-like management styles, give some power to dismissed faculty, and yes, receive financial compensation.

By the third hearing, it was clear that we would be awarded a settlement figure, which we, and the university, could accept or refuse. We were also told negotiations would end there, and both sides had a take-it-or-leave-it option.

The 10 of us felt vindicated by the decision, that the university acted improperly and should indeed pay compensation that ranged from 1 million yen to 1.7 million yen per person, depending on whether the person had secured employment yet.

Yes, some felt the figure was low, because it didn’t even fully cover their moving expenses. Still, 1 million yen or more per person — 13 million yen in total — clearly indicated the university’s culpability. And we had understood the limitations of the process from the start. With such a small amount, we felt confident the university would pay. After all, the total of over 13 million yen equaled just about half of the university president’s remuneration for one year.

For the three faculty who had received pay cuts due to the corrupted evaluation process, the mediators did not have the power to ask that we be compensated. However, the decided settlement amount would at least recover salary I lost for my flag letter and opposition to the Iraq war — or so it seemed.

Unfortunately, our result was destined to fall in the 20 percent of unresolved cases, because the university refused to pay even that amount. As the labor rep had explained on more than one occasion, the process doesn’t have any means to force employers to fulfill obligations. Still, even in the absence of compensation, vindication of our position made “assen” worthwhile.

The labor rep also explained another option in addition to “assen” or legal action. In 2006, Japan created a labor disputes system (“rodo shinpan seido”) so disgruntled workers could get a hearing with minimal cost and minimal delay. A judge decides the case after meeting no more than three times with one labor rep and a company rep.

Thus, the worker avoids not only lawyer fees, but a protracted court case that may otherwise drag on for years. And, as opposed to “assen,” unscrupulous employers don’t have a right to refuse or withdraw. Both parties can, however, appeal, all the way to the Supreme Court.

Our group didn’t have the option to use this new labor court because it only hears cases for individuals, not groups. Most who utilize this new system are labor union members — but some, like ourselves, join a union only after having a workplace dispute.

Thus, in this era of short term contracts, temporary jobs, and political shifts to the right, workers, foreign or otherwise, should remember they have rights and their employer has responsibilities. Unions, which only exist due to the support of their members, can point workers the way to “assen” mediation, a special labor disputes court, and, if those time and money saving options fail, can provide a union lawyer and sue the most unscrupulous of employers.

The writer of this article was obliged to use a pseudonym. Send comments and story ideas to:community@japantimes.co.jp

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