9th National Assembly of Workers’ Collective Network Japan

The 9th National Assembly of Workers’ Collective Network Japan (WNJ) took place on Sat, 05th and Sun, 06th December at Saitama (near Tokyo), Japan. Nearly 600 people, mostly (more than 90%) housewives in their 50s or 60s, came from different parts of this Asian country to this venue to see the colleagues they usually can’t see face to face due to the large distance which separate them, exchanging their experiences. I am sincerely grateful to WNJ for its invaluable efforts to elaborate a well-done booklet which has been quite helpful in writing this report.

The Workers’ Collective Network Japan has been organising its national assembly every two years since 1993 to which prefectural branches and other associates attend. The first workers’ collective in Japan, called “Ninjin” (which means “carrot”), was found in Kanagawa in 1982, followed by others in Tokyo and Chiba in 1984 and other prefectures. It is quite important to note the fact that most of them have been born as initiatives of consumers’ coops*, which were already quite active all over the country, in order to satisfy unmet socioeconomic needs, especially in the realms of deli service, childcare and elderly care. In other words, most workers’ collectives have been in close touch with existing consumers’ coops, and this aspect has its own advantages as well as disadvantages to be mentioned later. And it is also true that the movement has not spread into the whole country evenly, with some prefectures with dozens of workers’ collectives while some others still have none.

* Some non-Japanese actors of solidarity economy tend to misunderstand that the term “Seikatsu” (which means “daily life” in Japanese) is the name for consumers’ coops throughout the country: actually the Seikatsu Club Consumers’ Co-operative Union (in English, Spanish, Korean and Japanese) is only active in some prefectures in Eastern Japan while, for instance Fukuoka, where the author currently resides, has Green Coop and F Coop.  The best term in Japanese to describe the whole movement of consumers’ coop is “Shôhisha Seikyô” (Consumers’ Coop).

The assembly began with 7 workshops which were simultaneously held on Saturday afternoon. The 1st workshop dealt with the law-making process since Japan has still no law at all to rule workers’ collectives, discussing a revision of the Insurance Business Act to take into effect in April 2011 will affect negatively on mutual aid associations. Mr. Atsushi Fujii from Rikkyô Univ. gave another presentation on the Social Enterprise Development Act in South Korea, telling that this law is the fruit of the anti-poverty movement together with labour unions there as such businesses which provide employment and/or social services to the fragile social class are recognised as social enterprises, entitled to tax benefits, subsidies and other supports and suggesting some strategies to the Japanese audience. Finally Ms. Masako Ogawara (senator) gave an outline on the process towards the approval of the law in this respect. The 2nd workshop was about the child and elderly care services provided by workers’ collectives, with four speakers sharing their day-to-day experiences and showing how their help has been improving users’ life standard.

The 3rd workshop was about deli services where the harsh reality was presented and discussed. In the greater Tokyo area 28 out of 63 workers’ collectives are in the red and the presenter paid attention to the fact that Kanagawa has more profitable enterprises than other prefectures, guessing that the better financial performance there is perhaps thanks to the close relationship between the deli service and other sectors of Seikatsu Club Group such as elderly care. It should be reminded of the fact that most delis cost more than 500 yen (US$5.50) in the current deflationary trend where ordinary businesses sell as cheap as 200 yen (US$2.20), which makes consumers to choose economical options although they understand the significance of those goods from such workers’ collectives.

The 4th workshop was about workers collectives’ management and five successful cases of elderly care, childcare, deli etc. were shown. A remarkable initiative at Sakura, Chiba combines different activities, such as recollection of used rapeseed oil, recycling, organic food and deli service, paying 1,000 to 1,300 yen (US$ 11.10 to 14.40) per hour to its members according to each one’s experience, on top of distributing fliers to its neighbours when the sale was stagnated. The 5th workshop was about the childcare service and one speaker accentuated the importance of such child care centres as a hub for the whole community while another speaker mentioned the costliness of this service due to its labour-intensive style.

The 6th workshop was about the community building in which workers’ collectives work closely with consumers’ coops. One initiative in Kanagawa leverages all existing resources of consumers’ coops, such as advertisement channels and self-management experiences, to promote people’s participation to the elderly care. Another speaker mentioned about the establishment of another social welfare juridical person in Fukuoka as a joint project of a workers’ collective with another consumers’ coop. The 7th workshop explored the possibility for everybody in the community to work, showing initiatives of dishwashing service, bakery and deli services etc. which gives employment to cocooning youth, the handicapped and other people who had suffered from social exclusion before joining workers’ collectives.

Sunday morning began with some greetings, including one from a vice-governor of Saitama, followed with six presentations on draft plans of new workers’ collectives, ranging from urban agriculture support to childcare and deli services. It was the first time that WNJ asked the youth out of its own network to give a presentation on such cases with the aim to spread out the very concept of workers’ collective to new sorts of people and participants rather enjoyed the uniqueness of these drafts than studied the feasibility (some projects by students were hugely dependent on the contributions from their professors). On the afternoon nine other workshops, ranging from the commercialisation of products workers’ collective make, food issue, NPO Bank ** to the youth, were done.

** The most popular term in Japan to designate solidarity finance is NPO Bank (“NPO” in Japanese means “non-profit”), although other businesses can borrow money from such financial institutions.

This assembly was virtually my first time to learn about the practices of workers’ collectives in Japan and I could see both their achievements and what is at stake: the close connection between them and consumers’ coops is beneficial in the sense that deli makers, restaurants etc. can be provided from other players of solidarity economy with organic food etc., while raising the raw material cost and making these businesses less profitable. It would improve their cost performance to replace expensive raw materials with other stuffs available in the conventional supply chain, but this would be the last thing to come to their mind because these workers’ collectives have been conceived as a way to strengthen the cooperative spirit of the existing consumers’ coops into other socioeconomic fields.

Also it should not be forgotten that most people at workers’ collectives are paid below the minimum wage (in Japan each prefecture determines its own minimum wage and it ranges from 791 yen (US$8.78) in Tokyo to 629 yen (US$6.89) in Okinawa etc.) and that they are therefore obliged to have other income sources (either their husbands’ income or their pension) to sustain themselves. This fact may mislead to a potential perception that workers’ collectives are only for well-off housewives and the retired who are little worried about making money, and it will be urgently needed for them to come up with other business models in order to churn out such jobs which would allow men to sustain the whole family. In this respect it would be very useful to study what the Korean Law on Social Enterprises has achieved to see which elements can be applied for the Japanese legal system, on top of stimulating the exchanges with workers’ coops in other continents such as Europe and Latin America.

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