Zenroren speaks out in policy arena to deal with post-disaster reconstruction and the ongoing nuclear crisis
--We are working to rebuild and change society by drawing lessons from earthquake and tsunami in northeastern Japan
By INOUE Hisashi
Vice Secretary General
National Confederation of Trade Unions (Zenroren)
Since the March 11 Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami and the outbreak of nuclear crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, the National Confederation of Trade Unions (Zenroren) has put all its energy to help affected people.
It immediately launched an appeal to workers throughout the country for cash and in-kind donations, and established joint relief centers in Ofunato (Iwate Prefecture) and Ishinomaki (Miyagi Prefecture) to organize volunteers to help in the distribution of supplies and the cleanup of damaged houses. Our activities in these areas earned trust from many residents of the affected areas. Based on their immediate demands and requests, which we learned through our volunteers there, Zenroren has proposed necessary policy measures to meet their needs and made representations to the national and relevant local governments as well as Tokyo Electric Power Company, the operator of the crippled Fukushima Daiichi plant.
Three months have passed since the disaster, but more than 88,000 people are still forced to endure difficult days in evacuation centers. The quake- and tsunami-hit areas are in serious conditions in all aspects, and the need now is to overcome all these difficulties.
As clear from ongoing discussions at the government council on post-disaster reconstruction and remarks by the governor of Miyagi Prefecture, the financial circles and large corporations are conceiving “structural reform” policies under the name of post-disaster reconstruction, in order to impose top-down authoritarian planning of mega development projects, force the working people to pay more in taxes, including the consumption tax, introduce the “do-shu” system (to reorganize Japan's 47 prefectures into a smaller number of larger administrative blocs) as well as special post-disaster reconstruction zones. These moves are increasingly antagonizing the victims’ wish to rebuild their lives and revitalize communities.
Under these circumstances, it is more and more important to understand the actual conditions and the needs of those affected by the earthquake and tsunami through consultations with them and to join efforts with residents to help realize their pressing demands in opposition to big business-oriented plans.
These efforts are not just limited to helping disaster-hit people. For example, elderly people’s health problems are serious due to the inadequate provision of healthcare and nursing care services, all the more so because adverse revisions of social services have led to further cutbacks in medical services as well as the elimination and consolidation of public hospitals and other medical institutions. In other words, quake and tsunami victims’ suffering is expanding and lingering against a background of the “structural reform” policy promoting the destruction or hollowing out of the national minimum standards. This has become clear to everyone.
That is why the post-disaster reconstruction and victims’ efforts to rebuild their living conditions are the Japanese people’s and workers’ tasks linked to the reconstruction of crumbling Japanese society, the creation of stable jobs, and elimination of poverty and income inequalities. They are also associated with the workers’ struggle to improve their working and living conditions. We should keep in mind these viewpoints in our efforts.
We begin by understanding the hardships disaster victims are experiencing
The immediate task is to increase work on proposing policies and intensify the struggle to improve various social programs and policies, based on the immediate needs and requests raised by victims of the disaster. More than three months after the devastating earthquake and tsunami, people in the stricken areas are in serious conditions as follows:
(1) Protracted evacuation and difficulty in securing housing
There are 88,000 people who are still forced to stay in evacuation centers (41,000 are in evacuation centers in three disaster-hit prefectures). Their evacuation is being protracted, and securing housing is the most difficult problem. The government has assured that temporary housing will be secured for all evacuees by August. But actually, there is an acute shortage of housing even though the local governments are putting evacuees to private apartment houses for rent. Some of the newly built temporary houses are located in remote areas. Evacuees say they are too far from workplaces and schools. Evacuation centers that accommodate people from wide areas are being closed, leaving some without next places to go.
Even while evacuation is being protracted, efforts to improve conditions at evacuation centers are very slow. In group living like this, evacuees’ right to privacy is not protected. They are compelled to eat bread and boxed lunch for meals. Bathing and washing are no easy. Their human rights are not protected properly. Some people have fallen sick. There have even been old people’s unnecessary deaths. Some old couples and families with babies, unable to endure these difficult conditions, have left evacuation centers to live in the second floor of their damaged houses without electric power and gas available.
(2) Evacuees feel more and more uncertain about their future
In addition to the loss of local infrastructure as well as homes and jobs, many disaster-hit people are forced to endure the protracted evacuation. With personal money running out, they are increasingly uncertain about their future.
Although the distribution of relief money has begun for affected families, those who have everything swept away by tsunami would need more than the 1.4 million yen (for houses completely destroyed).
Under these circumstances, the number of people in need of public livelihood assistance benefits is increasing, but their applications are turned down due to the strict assessment of applicants’ assets. In some cases, contrary to the government instruction, receivers of disaster donations have been disqualified from the public livelihood assistance program on the grounds that the relief money they received are regarded as income.
The Disaster Relief Act basically provides a framework for helping in emergency evacuation and rescue in times of disaster. In its basic concept, an evacuee “is not in need of help” if temporary housing is provided. It is supposed to be the personal responsibility to rebuild life. If one comes to live in temporary housing, public assistance would end, which would make life more difficult. It is for this reason that there are people who are hesitant to move into temporary housing. The latest major disaster fundamentally calls into question the Disaster Relief Act.
(3) Collapse in employment and quality jobs
Many places of work were swept away by tsunami and many businesses have been forced to shut down temporarily or permanently. Manufacturing is being scaled down. All this has led to dismissals and termination of labor contracts as well as pay cuts. Collapse in employment is affecting quake and tsunami victims. Although a special measure has been taken to extend unemployment benefits for 120 days (60 days added to the 60 days for those who have been forced out of work for employers’ reasons). But due to the past adverse revisions, the unemployment benefits are too small to sustain living standards. In addition, contingent workers, who are growing in number, many farmers, fishermen, and small- and medium-sized business operators, are left without any public assistance programs.
However, in public works associated with post-disaster reconstruction, including the removal of debris, orders to local businesses are not secured. In the multilayered subcontracting structure, the amount of wages would be 5,000 yen or 6,000 yen a day, which is about half or a third of the government estimates (by the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism and the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries). Most temporary workers at local governments are being hired on short-term contracts for low wages in the framework of the existing funds. Many of these workers are complaining that their wages are too low to sustain their livelihoods.
The job creation project launched by the government as part of post-disaster reconstruction efforts has invited temporary agency workers and live-in helps from around the country. Regulation has been eased to allow staffing companies to set up their reception desks at emergency evacuation centers. Nevertheless, many workers, mainly young people, are compelled to go out of their prefectures to seek jobs. If this trend picks up, those people who left their prefectures to seek jobs will necessarily face a precarious employment situation, easy dismissals and unilateral termination of work contracts. This could further worsen the quality of employment in Japan.
(4) Endless nuclear disaster is worsening labor situation
The nuclear accident at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant has further complicated the already serious damage from the earthquake and tsunami. With no prospects for ending the crisis in sight, residents in areas near the troubled nuclear power plant are forced to leave their towns, without knowing when they would be able to return. They are unable to envisage their reconstructed lives.
In spite of the fact that no one can tell exactly what should be done to end the crisis at Fukushima Daiichi, Tokyo Electric Power Company’s tentative compensation payments are limited. The one-million yen in compensation is clearly inadequate. At the same time, compensation payments are being made to households in exclusion zones, and the amounts of money in compensation are too small. The need now is to make additional compensation payments and increase their amounts.
A large number of workers are working to bring the crippled nuclear power plant under control. With family members evacuating to distant places, these workers are compelled to work at the plant to continue to earn a living. But, in a rush work, they are forced to work excessively long hours. They are concerned about inadequate safety measures in the work places that might cause harm to their health. Newly recruited workers are complaining about actual jobs assigned to them in contravention of the terms of contract. They are also complaining about their small apartments in Iwaki and other cities, which are provided by the employer. In the multilayered subcontracting system, they are treated as throw away workers. Drastically improving their working conditions is in the interest of all workers and all Japanese people.
(1) Policies called for by Zenroren for post-disaster reconstruction
Zenroren has intensified activities to end these hardships by proposing policy measures, including improvements in institutions. Immediately after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, Zenroren made clear what should be done to deal with the disaster. It repeatedly made requests to the government, the Diet and TEPCO. It was particularly important that we petitioned Diet members for a series of measures: additional requests regarding support for quake survivors’ lives; measures to generate jobs; immediate measures regarding the implementation of the new post-disaster reconstruction law; and compensation payments to households affected by the nuclear disaster and other emergency measures for them. The tasks raised in these petitions continue to have relevance today.
Taking these actions into account, Zenroren on May 20 compiled two proposals. One is “Zenroren’s first proposal of measures for post-disaster reconstruction focusing on generating and securing jobs, helping stabilize livelihoods, and improving social services,” and the other “Zenroren’s policy proposals on nuclear power plants ? Japan should end its dependence on nuclear power to move toward renewable energy sources.”
The “Zenroren’s first proposal of measures for post-disaster reconstruction focusing on generating and securing jobs, helping stabilize livelihoods, and improving social services” consists of the following five proposals, which shows the directions for post-disaster reconstruction based on helping affected people rebuild their living conditions.
||1: We demand improvements in measures to assist disaster-hit households, including those affected by the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant accident, focusing on reconstructing their homes and jobs.
||2: Implement post-disaster reconstruction projects with a view to strengthening disaster resistance in cities and towns, with the local community taking the initiative to do it
||3: Bring the crippled nuclear reactors under control to stop the leaks of radioactive materials and pay the full amounts of compensation for damage from the nuclear power plant as quickly as possible.
||4: Find the fiscal resources for post-disaster reconstruction by cutting wasteful expenditures and forcing large corporations and the wealthy to share the financial burden.
||5: Recognize that securing stable and quality employment and improving social security services are the best way to reconstruct the quake-hit areas.
(2) What we are aiming to achieve based on these proposals.
In carrying out these activities for policy measures, it is important to understand what Zenroren considers as the key issues.
First, the basis of the effort should be to respond to the hardships and urgent needs of disaster-affected people.
I know that there are various opinions, but without rebuilding their living conditions and restoring humanity, there can be no post-disaster reconstruction or rebuilding of sustainable communities that are earthquake-proof.
Only by affirming this point and by helping people rebuild stable living conditions through securing homes and well paying jobs to earn a living is it possible to get post-disaster reconstruction moving for a bright future. This is the position on which Zenroren puts forward concrete tasks.
Secondly, while giving priority to the effort to rebuild disaster victims’ living conditions, we will share with the public the recognition that damage from the disaster is being exacerbated and protracted because of the Japanese economy being run primarily in the interest of large corporations and led by a neoliberal “structural reform” policy that has led to a jobs market collapse and successive adverse reforms of social services. Our proposal for post-disaster reconstruction is based on the principle that the main beneficiaries are residents and their communities. It is the essential principle not just for the disaster-hit areas but for all the Japanese workers. It will also pave the way for revitalizing the economy led by expanding domestic demand.
Thirdly, while putting all our energy to the immediate tasks for post-disaster reconstruction, we pay more serious attention to the need to remake Japanese society, which has been affected by the globalized economy and distorted by the “structural reform” policy.
For example, in dealing with the issues of increasing unemployment and poverty, we are demanding far-reaching reform of the unemployment insurance system. We have been pointing out that the present public aid system is particularly inadequate for people who lost jobs as contingent workers, farmers, fishers, and small- and medium-sized business operators. We will demand that post-disaster reconstruction efforts include generating more public sector jobs with decent wages and that a system to compensate loss of earnings be created for disaster victims.
In putting forward these demands, Zenroren has further developed its policy demand by combining a proposal, which it proposed at its recent convention, for a nation with a welfare policy to achieve stability in employment and improvements in social security services with the pressing needs arising from the major disaster.
Unable to fix its own mess, the government is intensifying its push for a reactionary solution by establishing a grand coalition with the conservatives. We know that all recent Japanese cabinets have been short lived because they have been in disregard of the public needs in implementing policies. Taking this in mind, we are called upon to join forces with the disaster victims and disaster-hit areas as we work for the realization of post-disaster reconstruction demands. We are confident that we can open up a new era by increasing such cooperation.