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Impoverished students march for ¥1,500 minimum wage

Kyodo

A student-led movement is campaigning to raise Japan’s minimum wage and improve the lives of low-income workers as many continue struggling just to meet basic needs despite toiling for long hours.

Some 1,500 people took to the streets of Tokyo’s bustling Shinjuku district in mid-April to call for a uniform minimum wage of ¥1,500 per hour across the country.

“Reduce inequality,” “Raise wages for people working in the nursing industry” and “Don’t vote for politicians who are indifferent to poverty,” chanted the protesters, led by members of an anti-poverty movement called Aequitas.

Aequitas consists of people who are mainly in their 20s. Rie Fujikawa, a 25-year-old member, said, “We want to eat something other than bean sprouts and poultry. We want to buy for children what they want.”

Aequitas, which means fairness and justice in Latin, was formed by university students in September 2015. Its founding members were inspired by the Fight for $15 movement in the United States, which was set up in 2012 by fast-food workers in New York City to demand higher wages and better working conditions.

According to Fujikawa, the minimum wage averaged ¥823 per hour in fiscal 2016, which translates into about ¥1.7 million per year, based on a 40-hour work week.

At that level, people can’t even afford to go to the hospital, she said.

Raising the minimum wage to ¥1,500 would allow people to earn more than ¥3 million a year and thus afford basic medical services, said Fujikawa. It would also expand their options in life.

Fujikawa said that when she was a child, her father, a dental technician, also delivered newspapers to support the family. An injury incurred while delivering papers, however, made him unemployed, forcing her to take a part-time job while in high school.

She borrowed money to complete her college education, but it will take her 30 years to repay the loan with her monthly installments of ¥15,000.

A 20-year-old university student who marched in the protest took the loudspeaker and said: “Not all students can participate in the rally because they have to devote most of their time to work. People like me — who have sufficient time — are taking action on their behalf.”

Writer and activist Karin Amamiya took part in her first Aequitas rally in December 2015. The 42-year-old writer said she was deeply impressed by Fujikawa’s speech.

“Fujikawa was calling to the crowd from her soul,” Amamiya said. “As I have been involved in anti-poverty movements, it was very encouraging to see young people like her raise their voices.”

Aequitas branches have formed in Kyoto and Nagoya as well.

Shoji Hashiguchi, a member of the Kyoto branch, was a part-time teacher at Osaka International University. In his last lecture at the university on Jan. 25, he spoke about workers’ health and rights while showing a video of a December 2015 speech made by Fujikawa.

A student who attended his last class was quoted as saying, “I have recognized how serious poverty is for people.”

Hashiguchi, 39, attended graduate school to study labor sociology. He has also worked for a labor union set up to protect individuals.

He said his clients at the union include a nursery employee who was dismissed after making critical comments about the employer, and a nonregular worker who was subjected to “power harassment.”

Hashiguchi said he bargained collectively with the employer of the power-harassed worker. “Some employers in this country see workers just as a cost element.”

Some companies sell their products for unduly low prices because price-cutting has intensified, Hashiguchi said, noting that “workers are paid inappropriately” as a result.

If wages are low, workers will spend less, leaving Japanese consumption slack, he said, adding that low-margin, high-volume businesses will expand further.

“If the minimum hourly wage is raised to ¥1,500, consumption will be invigorated, helping turn around the economy.”