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Shane Dismisses Leading Labor Union Organizers

SNA (Tokyo) — Shane Corporation management, which earlier this year attempted to force its language teachers to repay the furlough allowance they had received during the coronavirus emergency shutdown in the spring, has followed up with yet more egregious action.

In response to its initial attempt to recover the furlough allowance payments, Tozen Union, to which the Shane teachers belong, held collective bargaining sessions and took protest actions, including strikes. In the end, management relented and notified employees that they would not be required to repay the furlough allowance. For a time, there appeared to be a positive outcome for the talks between the labor union and management.

But Shane’s management proved unable to let the matter rest there. Management soon chose not to renew the contracts (effectively firing) leading union members who had actively organized the resistance. Naturally, the union believes that this is retaliation against the legitimate exercise of labor rights.

Backing up for a moment, it should be noted that about 800 full-time teachers, counselors, and staff work at Shane; but, in principle, each is employed on one-year fixed-term contracts. This precarious employment system obviously weakens their negotiating positions. Tozen Union claims that Shane took advantage of this questionable system even in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

When Shane closed its schools between April 8, when the state of emergency was declared, and May 31, they paid employees their ordinary pay (about ¥250,000 gross for full-time teachers). At first it seemed that Shane had properly paid the entire furlough allowance in good faith.

But come June the company unexpectedly told employees they would have to do unpaid overtime in order to repay the money that had been transferred into their accounts in April and May. That meant Shane considered the money paid to employees, not as a furlough allowance, but rather as an advance to be paid back after the schools reopened. This was most likely a violation of the legal requirement to pay the furlough allowance, as well as the Labor Standards Act prohibition against lending wages in advance to be worked off later.

Tozen Union naturally demanded a reversal of this policy and held collective bargaining sessions. Talks came to loggerheads, and Tozen Union members went on strike on consecutive days, exercising their labor rights as stipulated in the Trade Union Act.

On July 21, more than forty workers went on strike, greatly impacting company operations. Many Shane employees supported Tozen Union’s actions, and the Shane Workers Union, which had only twenty members in mid-June, grew almost four-fold to nearly eighty by the autumn.

Ultimately, the company was forced to concede. On November 6, Shane notified all employees that it would not ask them to repay the furlough allowance after all.

It was only a fortnight later that Shane notified a leading union member that it would not renew his contract. Three other members were soon driven out of their jobs via dismissal or pressure to resign.

It should be pointed out that Shane suffers from chronic staff shortages and it has no need to downsize. In fact, the company cited two reasons when they first notified one union member of his non-renewal: that he had not submitted a medical report when he left work early one day in March; and that he was too persistent in asking his boss for an explanation when someone in his classroom was infected with Covid-19.

The coronavirus had already spread widely by March, and the employee’s decision to stay home and to watch developments was reasonable as well as in line with the national government’s guidelines at the time. Certainly, an employee seeking a clear explanation when someone at the workplace becomes infected with the coronavirus is entirely reasonable.

The company claims that there is no problem with non-renewals at the end of the fixed-term contract, but if non-renewals were indeed in retaliation against workers who raise their voices, then it would be an abuse of management prerogatives, and the non-renewal would be invalid.

Shane appears to be employing a strategy of what Japanese call “candy and the whip” (ame to muchi), known as “carrot and the stick” to English speakers. Such tactics have been faced by labor movements from very their outset in the 19th century. Some managers see workers who speak out as being heretics and rebels, and so they offer conciliatory gestures to most employees in order to co-opt them, while attempting to single out and crush those who are seen as being troublemakers.

Likewise, Shane’s management appears to have made an effort to placate most of its employees, while isolating and non-renewing the workers who showed the most courage to speak out against the unjust and probably illegal policy.

Article 7.1 of the Trade Union Act prohibits employers from “dismissing or otherwise treating in a disadvantageous manner a worker by reason of membership in a labor union, having tried to join or organize a labor union, or having performed legitimate union action.” Tozen Union claims that Shane has violated this provision by retaliating against union members for the legitimate exercise of their rights.

The union plans to sue in the Tokyo Labor Commission over this claim, and the commission will ultimately provide its judgment on whether or not the contract non-renewals went over the line.

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