Web site-aided union wins back pay

by Toshihiro Ariyoshi

Kyodo News

A Web site helped Hikaru Watanabe organize a union to seek compensation for overtime from a major firm that operates a chain of menswear retail outlets.

Watanabe, 26, became the first president of the union established in February by employees of Yokohama-based Konaka Co. after learning of the Web log run by the Labor Consultation Center, a nonprofit organization in Katsushika Ward, Tokyo.

The center received two anonymous letters in March and July 2006 accusing Konaka of failing to pay its employees for putting in long hours after completing their regular workload. The letter gave specific information about their so-called service overtime.

Mitsuteru Suda, a 36-year-old staffer of the center, posted a message on the blog addressed to employees of Konaka, which operates about 300 stores throughout the country, and their family members asking them if workers at the company’s outlets had been involved in service overtime and if there had been any deaths from overwork.

He gradually began getting responses on the Web site, including one that alleged a companywide coverup of wrongdoing regarding service overtime, a popular term referring to nonpayment of wages for work done outside the usual working hours stipulated under the Labor Standards Law.

The practice of doing such overtime, which some describe as a violation of the law, has been on the rise since the 1980s.

A record 1,679 companies were subject to corrective directives in 2006 by the Labor Standards Inspection Office of the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry. The firms receiving such guidance in and after fiscal 2003 included Tokyo Electric Power Co. and Toyota Motor Corp.

The messages Suda received were all anonymous until Watanabe searched for “Konaka service overtime” on the Web site and telephoned him in October 2006.

Watanabe told Suda that the situation at Konaka was exactly “as recorded” on the blog.

Following his telephone conversation with Suda, Watanabe joined the National Union of General Workers Tokyo Tobu (East) and established a local union within Konaka. He was alone and had no experience with or knowledge of unions. He acknowledges that he was scared management might start pressuring him.

Watanabe, a deputy manager of the Konaka store in Kashima, Ibaraki Prefecture, made the decision to set up the union after New Year’s. He faxed all Konaka stores to send him information on working conditions and to ask employees to join the union.

Yasuhiro Sasagawa, 25, was on the verge of quitting when Watanabe approached him. He was worn out after working long hours but was persuaded to accept the post of union secretary general.

Tadahisa Nakamura, 30, who joined the union in March and became vice president, said: “I decided to participate in the union after I read the blog in which the president said he was scared. After seeing the two younger men taking the lead in the union, I wondered myself what I had been doing for the past 10 years.”

Declaring it would deal sincerely with the union, management joined 11 collective-bargaining sessions during the period through October. Although there are differences between the two sides, the sessions have yielded results as the company has paid about ¥900 million in overtime to about 720 rank-and-file workers and about ¥470 million in “special bonuses” to about 380 former and current store managers and other employees.

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