Berlitz Japan update

I haven’t posted about Berlitz Japan in some time, but it is a story I am still very interested in.

As you may know, there was a unit of organized foreign workers called the National Union of General Workers–Foreign Workers’ Caucus (FWC), which was based out of Shimbashi, and which I was a member of from 2006 to early 2008. The FWC was not very well organized, and there was a certain amount of personality clashes within the group. It reminded me too much of the Episcopal Church, with everyone having to have their way, and so it was no surprise when, finally, the Caucus split.

Most of the people who regularly attended meetings (i.e. active in that way) split off and became “Tokyo General Union” (Tozen). Four significant branches stayed with the FWC rump organization, and now are apparently folded into the National Union of General Workers–South unit in Tokyo, nicknamed “Nambu” This was Nick Wood’s UTU, Berlitz Union, the Sophia University union, and a union at Goldman Sachs in Roppongi.

While the group was still together, they had been running “rolling strikes” against Berlitz. This had been covered pretty extensively in the Japan Times, particularly after Berlitz turned around and counter-sued the union officials for 110 million yen (over a million dollars). They claimed that this was the cost to Berlitz for the rolling strikes.

The union side, which I support, presented the issue in very clear-cut terms that this was intimidation and retaliation for using the rights that an associated group like a union is protected under law to enjoy. There are apparently, though, one or two shades of gray, where the story might not be as clear cut–but nothing like a million dollars of damage. (The talk is that the Berlitz side, at a court appearance late last year, was focusing on the technicalities of whether the rolling strikes were properly called. If not, then those would not have been legal strikes.)

Two of the teachers who struck were subsequently fired after the lawsuit was filed. One is a U.S. army reservist who was called to Afghanistan. By my read, he was entitled to protection by “USERRA“, if Berlitz Japan was considered a “single employer” affiliate of its New Jersey-based parent. (There are maybe one or two other qualifications.) As you can see from the link, it costs zero to have the U.S. Department of Labor determine whether a reservist is being improperly treated in his/her job situation because they were called up. I doubt anyone within the union followed up on this.

The second situation was Catherine Campbell, a brilliant woman from one of the Maritime provinces of Canada, who had been in Japan for many years, and who spoke fluent Japanese. She was a permanent resident. After the lawsuit was served, Catherine discovered that she had cancer. Because Berlitz did not enroll Catherine in the proper Employee’s Health Insurance (Shakai Hoken), Catherine had to return to Canada for treatment. (She was either without coverage, or, in particular, needed the disability coverage under Shakai Hoken.) Because she didn’t get better “fast enough”, she was fired by Berlitz in 2010.

This second story goes to all those people who say that language fluency is the barrier to having your labor rights respected in Japan. Well, no. Because what happens is that someone who wants to screw with you just moves on to another excuse . . .

On February 27, there is expected to be a decision out of the Tokyo court as to who is liable in this lawsuit. But, as you can see: what a mess!

In both the reservist’s and in Catherine’s cases, I am surprised that embassy people were not more involved in the particulars. Berlitz does a ton of business with the United States government. And Canada does its best to insure (i.e. cover) Japanese who are living and working in Canada—not play games like the Japanese do!! I used to point out to the FWC that they needed to be more pro-active with the embassies about foreigner-Japanese issues. But a number of times my advice was not taken, and I was made to feel like I was talking out of my ass or something.

[Update 2/14/12: David Ashton writes to tell me that the Sophia University branch left the NUGW and joined Tozen, several months after the initial split.]

[Update 3/11/12: I should update this page, that the Berlitz Union (Begunto) won the trial court case, here. But there is a philosophical question about "win", since the Berlitz Union was badly shaken by the litigation. That's litigation for you, isn't it?]