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HOME  > Past issues  > 2020 December 23 - 2021 January 5  > Non-regular workers at hotels in Okinawa form union
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2020 December 23 - 2021 January 5 [LABOR]

Non-regular workers at hotels in Okinawa form union

January 4, 2021
Agency workers in Okinawa who are assigned to housekeeping and other hotel jobs have won their demands by forming a union amid the ongoing pandemic. The success of the non-regular workers’ fight has attracted public attention and proved once again the value and influence of labor unions.

“I couldn’t accept my company’s refusal to pay allowance for forced leave due to the COVID-19 outbreak. So, it was great for my colleagues and me to get help from the Okinawa local of the National Confederation of Trade Unions (Zenroren),” said a 42-year-old vice head of the newly-established union, Okano Tenpei. He works at a temp agency as a driver transporting hotel temps, such as housekeepers, between the company office and client hotels. Okano discovered the Zenroren local when he was looking for ways to deal with his company’s imposition of unpaid leave during the temporary suspension of hotels following the pandemic.

In Okinawa, with the opening of many foreign-owned hotels, the number of workers working at hospitality temp agencies increased. Many are working low-paid part-time jobs and became the first to be affected by the COVID recession.

Among non-regular workers in the hotel industry, some experienced unpaid leave and others faced a wrongful termination of their employment contracts. A member of the newly-established union said, “My company refused to allow me to take paid leave. In addition, while insisting, ‘You would be better off leaving your job and applying for unemployment benefits,’ my company neglected to do the paperwork needed to claim the benefits.” The union found that there are many workers who are not covered by the unemployment insurance due to their employers' disregard of filing for the insurance.

Okano and his fellow workers doing cleaning jobs at hotels on June 12 in Uruma City held an inaugural meeting of their union branch of the Zenroren Okinawa local in the hospitality industry.

The newly-formed union branch attracted 25 workers working at seven hotels. The secretary of the Zenroren Okinawa local, Minema Shin’nichi, said, “The inaugural meeting achieved success with an unexpectedly large number of workers participating.” As a result of efforts made by union members after the reopening of hotels, the union membership exceeded 50.

The newly-established union branch went into collective negotiations with two outsourcing companies including Tokyo-based C-TEC Co., Ltd., winning significant results such as the withdrawal of dismissals/forcible retirement, unemployment insurance enrollment, and annual paid holidays. Some union members cheerfully reported on an improvement in working conditions, saying, "The company at a morning meeting told us we could take a rest break."

These companies initially refused to provide leave allowances by saying, "Where the business is being suspended are hotels you work at. That is why you are not on the shift roster, so we have no obligation to pay you anything." In arguing against this, the union branch said, "The workers had to take days off on the order of the company," and filed a complaint to the labor standards inspection office. As a result, the labor authorities issued admonitions to the two companies. In addition, the labor inspector reprimanded them for neglecting their obligations to maintain employment-related documents.

The companies, however, claimed that they could not afford to pay workers leave allowances. Instead, the companies cooperated with the union members to apply for government support so that the workers can receive at least minimal compensation.

Okano recalled, "We were at first ignored by the companies. With the existence of the union, however, we were able to achieve results."

Minema said, "Many workers probably think, 'There is nothing they can do about improvements in working conditions because the entire country is in the middle of the COVID-19 crisis.' But we thought, 'This is wrong, and we should stand up.' This led to participation in union activities."

In late June, due to the government "Go To" travel campaign, occupancy rates in some Okinawan hotels improved around 80%. However, as many workers left their jobs amid the pandemic, most hotels were still short-handed. The work the remaining workers had to shoulder dramatically increased.

Workers in some hotels have to do multiple tasks alone, dealing with as many as 100 tasks per room. This is obviously overwork.

Hourly wages range from 800 yen to 1,200 yen at most in understaffed hotels. However, to maintain a decent quality of life in Okinawa, an hourly wage of at least 1,642 yen is needed, according to the Zenroren Okinawa local.

Hasegawa Minoru, secretary of the union branch, said, "Compared to their hard work, their hourly wages are too low. It is necessary to increase wages. The union branch was formed amid the pandemic, and we'd like to work to contribute to improving Okinawa's tourism sector where wages will be adequately paid, excessive overtime is strictly regulated, and workers can work without anxieties."
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