Veteran of labor negotiation battles helping Myanmar workers unionize


Shigeru Nakajima is helping Myanmar’s burgeoning democracy by encouraging laborers in the country to unionize and helping the groups take root there.

Upon taking up his post as head of the newly opened Myanmar office of the International Trade Union Confederation in December last year, the 68-year-old Kanagawa Prefecture native kicked off his three-year tenure without pay.

“The advantage of not getting paid is being able to say whatever you want without hesitation,” Nakajima said.

In Myanmar, under the rule of the military junta, when people used to hold back from giving advice to their elders or superiors, legislation was enacted in 2011 to permit the organization of labor unions. With Nakajima’s help, union activities are becoming more enlivened.

Nakajima said his experiences in labor negotiations and unionization, including the concept of “rights” and how to form unions, will prove invaluable.

“It’s no use just thumping your desk (during labor-management talks). You need to convince (the management) with data,” he said.

He said he wants to provide local labor unions with knowledge he’s gained through hundreds of battles “as food for thought.”

Nakajima said a turning point in his life came when he was in his final year of junior high school. Skipping school, he went to a rally against the security treaty with the United States in Tokyo’s Hibiya Park and was overwhelmed by its momentum, saying that at that moment, he felt he could change the world.

He recalled his father telling him ahead of the Hibiya Park rally: “I believe the event will affect your way of living down the road.”

His father’s words came true.

Nakajima became a member of the executive body of the International Labor Organization in 2004 and held the post for about six years after working for the All-Japan Prefectural and Municipal Workers Union (Jichiro) and the Japanese Trade Union Confederation (Rengo).

Nakajima visited Myanmar last October for the first time after monitoring its shifting tides since his days with Rengo.

Contrary to his expectations, Nakajima was impressed by the people’s cheerfulness in Myanmar.

His spiritual home is the coastal landscape in the Shonan district along Sagami Bay in Kanagawa Prefecture, where he used to spend time relaxing and reading paperback novels.

Nakajima said he is pleased with his new corner office, which sits in a building with a nice view of the port in Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city.