Japanese worker complaints fester at US bases during COVID-19 pandemic, union chief says
Stars and Stripes March 3, 2022
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TOKYO — Workplace disputes involving Japanese employees at U.S. military bases in Japan are being drawn out due to staff shortages and people working from home during the coronavirus pandemic, a union representative recently told Stars and Stripes.
There have been several reports in recent months of Japanese workers alleging mistreatment at U.S. bases near Tokyo.
At Camp Zama, headquarters of U.S. Army Japan near Tokyo, a pair of clerical workers at an aviation battalion filed claims with the Atsugi Labor Standards Inspection Office in September and December, the Yomiuri newspaper reported Feb. 5.
They are accusing their supervisors of “power harassment,” a type of workplace bullying that often involves someone in a more senior position asking lower-ranking employees to do things outside their job description, causing emotional or physical harm.
In December, the Tokyo District Court ordered the Japanese government to pay $4,840 to a Japanese worker at Naval Air Facility Atsugi to settle her claim of “verbal abuse and other forms of harassment” by her American supervisor, The Mainichi newspaper reported Dec. 14.
The court ruled that Japan is responsible when the U.S. military violates its obligations to workers' safety, because the military is exempt from civil lawsuit jurisdiction under international customary law, according to the report.
The regular turnover of U.S. managers and a shortage of Japanese personnel officers with experience handling such cases slows the resolution of workplace complaints, All Japan Garrison Forces Labor Union president Satohiro Konya told Stars and Stripes during an online interview Feb. 9.
The union represents about 25,000 Japanese workers on U.S. bases and another 15,000 workers nationwide.
Most issues are solved at the local level, often simply by talking, and few reach the national union, Konya said.
The union hasn’t noted an increase in disputes involving base workers but there are issues related to the pandemic, Konya said.
Some complaints are exacerbated because many employees are teleworking, he said. For example, it may be tougher for workers to schedule in-person meetings to talk about problems since staff may not be in their offices.
The U.S. military’s Japanese employees are in a unique situation. They’re hired by the Japanese government but work for the U.S. forces. In the event of workplace disputes, the union negotiates with the Japanese government, which then negotiates with the U.S. military, Konya said.
That can lead to miscommunication, he said. Something that’s considered harassment in the United States may not be under Japanese regulations.
“There are some differences in perspective,” he said.
Talks involving all three parties would help, and even casual discussions and more interaction would also be helpful, especially in building trust, Konya said.
Unfortunately, too few Japanese government personnel officers have experience dealing with the U.S. military, Konya said.
“There have been some cases which could have been less complicated if counseling had been given at an earlier stage,” he said.
The transfer of administrative work related to the management of Japanese base workers from local governments to a national organization has meant fewer staff dealing with personnel issues, Konya said. Cuts of national government workers due to reforms has also caused staff shortages.
Likewise, limited tours, usually between three and five years, for some U.S. personnel overseas means less familiarity with Japanese rules for managing their Japanese employees.
An appropriate work environment is an important part of the U.S. forces’ mission in Japan, a spokeswoman for Japan’s Ministry of Defense said Feb. 16. Japanese government spokespeople typically speak to the media on condition of anonymity.
“Based on such thought, the Ministry of Defense has worked on solving issues appropriately as we have been holding plenty of talks between Japan and the U.S. in order to secure an appropriate labor environment and employment stability for the workers,” the spokeswoman said.
Building a relationship of mutual trust between U.S. forces, Japanese employees and the Japanese government is important so that issues can be solved early, and management can be streamlined, the spokeswoman said.
“We are currently coordinating to be able to hold talks between the three parties,” she said.
Japanese base workers enable daily operations necessary for the security of Japan, U.S. Forces Japan spokesman Air Force Maj. Thomas Barger said in a Feb. 23 email to Stars and Stripes.
“Japanese employees at US installations throughout Japan are vital to overall mission success and are often the first ‘ambassadors’ to Japan encountered by US servicemembers and their families stationed in Japan,” he said. “As vital and valued team members in the US-Japan Alliance, we remain committed to working together to ensure any concerns are heard and resolved appropriately.”