3,000 foreign employees join ramen noodle shop’s workers union

by Magdalena Osumi

Staff Writer

Saitama-based ramen noodle restaurant operator Hiday Co. revealed Wednesday that its workers had formed a labor union, with some 3,000 foreign employees — mostly part-timers — joining the union’s ranks.

The move apparently reflects a growing need for secure working environments for the nation’s increasing foreign workforce and an awareness of labor issues.

The noodle chain operator hopes that such an organization protecting the rights of its employees within the company could actually work to the firm’s advantage.

“This indeed may help the management better communicate with workers” as the union will represent the voices of all workers, Juichi Shima, the company’s managing executive officer, told The Japan Times by phone.

Hiday Co. operates about 400 “Hidakaya” eateries that specialize in ramen. The company has around 9,000 workers, which includes more than 3,500 non-Japanese from around 18 countries, with a majority hailing from Vietnam and China.

Many of those employees are students at Japanese language or other vocational schools who are allowed to work for up to 28 hours per week under their student visa.

“An organization of such scale mirrors how many foreigners work in the food industry,” said Shinji Suzuki, spokesman for UA Zensen, a labor union network representing food and service workers among other core industries. Hiday’s union will operate under the UA Zensen umbrella.

Suzuki said that among UA Zensen’s members are other companies and even English school operators. Foreign workers account for 90 percent or all of its members. As of September, UA Zensen had 2,374 unions in its group.

Hiday’s Shima stressed the company tries to attract people regardless of their background and nationality and works to ensure equal rights for all its employees. Still, he said he was aware that foreigners may require a different form of support.

“I don’t think there’s been any specific problem that led workers to form the union,” but they have probably become more aware of potential labor issues and wanted better protection of their rights, Shima said. Specifically, he sees the formation of the labor union as an effort to protect the rights of nonpermanent staff who comprise over 90 percent of its work force.

Shima confirmed that the company’s workers formed a labor union around March. He also said the firm has offered financial assistance in the past for non-Japanese workers and has lengthened its training program for newcomers to better prepare people who are not accustomed with the Japanese working style.

Hidakaya’s workers are among about 1.78 million workers, including about 1 million part-timers, covered by UA Zensen.

“The labor ministry says that 90 percent of labor union members are full-time employees, according to an Asahi Shimbun article, but we believe that all workers should be protected regardless of their contract,” said UA Zensen’s Suzuki. “And we want to increase the number of such unions nationwide,” he added.