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Survey on Labour Disputes 2021


On August 2, the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare released a summary of its Survey on Labour Disputes 2021. A summary of the main results can be found below.

[Key Survey Results]

1. Total disputes

There were 297 incidents of “total disputes” (303 incidents in the previous year). This number of “total disputes” was the second-lowest ever, following 268 in 2019, and continues a long-term downward trend. Of these, the number of “disputes accompanied by acts of dispute” was 55 and the number of participants in these actions was 7,858, a decrease of 2 (3.5%) and an increase of 1,845 (30.7%), respectively, from the previous year.

2. Disputes accompanied by acts of dispute

(1) Type of action
By type of action, the number of “strikes for half a day or more” in 2021 was 32, the number of participants was 722, and the number of days of lost work was 1,388, representing a decrease of 3 (8.6%) in the number of strikes and 84 (10.4%) in the number of participants compared to the previous year. The number of lost workdays decreased by 429 (23.6%). Compared to the previous year, the number of “strikes lasting less than half a day” was 36, an increase of 2 (5.9%). The number of workers participating in such strikes increased by 1,943 (36.5%).

(2) Industry
Looking at the number of “disputes accompanied by acts of dispute” by industry in 2021, the largest number of incidents was 18 in the “medical care and welfare” category, followed by 8 each in the “manufacturing” and “education and learning support” categories. The largest number of participants was 5,708 in “medical and welfare,” followed by 1,052 in “manufacturing” and 511 in “wholesale and retail trade”. The number of lost workdays was the highest in “transportation, postal industry” (635 days), followed by “manufacturing” (303 days) and “education, learning support” (242 days).

3. Main demands

Looking at the number of “total disputes” in 2021 by category of demands, “wages” accounted for the largest number at 150 (50.5% of total disputes), followed by “union security and collective agreements” at 137 (46.1%), and “management, employment and personnel affairs” at 96 (32.3%).

4. Resolution of labour disputes

223 incidents of labour disputes were resolved within 2021, including those deemed to be resolved (243 incidents in the previous year). 63 incidents were resolved by “direct negotiation between labour and management” (61), and 77 incidents were resolved with the involvement of a third party (79).

The above is a summary of the results of the 2021 survey, but a longer-term view of the occurrence of labour disputes is as follows.

The highest number of labour disputes occurred in 1974, in the midst of Japan’s rapid economic growth. The number of total disputes was 10,462, of which 9,581 accompanied strikes. Wage negotiations were intense that year due to the sharp rise in prices caused by the first oil shock. As a result, labor disputes were so frequent.

There were still 4,000 to 8,000 labour disputes per year in the late 1970s. The disputes were mainly over bargaining breakthroughs for higher wage increases. Since 1980, the number of disputes has consistently declined almost annually. As the Japanese economy moved from a period of stable growth to low growth, the number of disputes also declined.

Since then, the number of disputes has fallen below 1,000 to 958 in 2000, 682 in 2010, below 500 in 2014, and below 300 to a record low of 268 in 2019.

The decrease in labour disputes can be attributed to the following factors.

The period from the late 1950s to the early 1970s is generally referred to as Japan’s period of rapid economic growth, during which the economy grew at about 10%. The period from the mid-1970s to the 1980s is called the period of stable growth, during which average economic growth was 4%. Since the 1990s, for over 30 years, Japan has been in a period of low economic growth of about 1%.

Corresponding to these changes, the rate of wage increase was 10% during the high-growth period, 5% during the stable-growth period, and has been about 2% during the low-growth period.

In Japan, labour–management discussions, which are separate from collective bargaining and mainly cover management issues, are well organized in many companies as a platform for discussion between labour and management. The enhancement of labour-management consultations promotes unions’ understanding of the business environment. It is also a key to stable labor–management relations. In addition, during periods of low growth, priority is inevitably given to securing employment, and demands for higher wages are overshadowed by the absence of intense collective bargaining.

Long-term economic stagnation and the establishment of discussions prior to disputes are the two main reasons thought to have contributed to the long-term decline in the number of disputes.

Stable labour–management relations and fewer labour disputes are desirable. However, there is a possibility that a situation may arise in the future in which a strike is absolutely necessary on the labour union side. In such a case, it is important for labour unions to maintain their organizational strength to effectively exercise the right of workers to strike.