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Freelance Labour Unions Continue to Form, National Organization Emerges


Amazon, as a major online retailer, offers home delivery services. On June 14, the Asahi Shimbun newspaper reported on the formation of a labour union, the Amazon Delivery Workers Union.

One of the union’s founders, a male driver in his 50s in Kanagawa Prefecture, signed an outsourcing contract with Amazon’s second-tier subcontractor transportation company in March 2019. As a sole proprietor, he uses his own vehicle and is responsible for delivering packages.

According to his package volume records, the average number of packages per day in July 2020 was 116. However, about a year ago, the company with which he had an outsourcing contract informed him that Amazon had adopted artificial intelligence (AI) for selecting delivery routes, and when he followed the AI instructions for delivery, the number of packages increased rapidly to an average of 178 packages in August 2021 and 214 packages in May this year. The work became more demanding and fatiguing.

Another man, after working as a full-time employee of a service-related company for about 15 years, was recommended by an acquaintance to start working as a driver as a sole proprietor. He thought this would allow him greater freedom to work.

In fact, he was treated the same as a worker, bound by restrictions on where and when he could work. However, sole proprietors are not considered workers because they are not formally employed, and the Labour Standards Act and other protective mechanisms often do not apply to them.

“No overtime pay, no restrictions on working hours, no restrictions on dismissal. Instead of a free work style, the reality is that we are ‘company employees with nothing.’ I don’t think the industry can sustain itself with this kind of work style,” he says.

Led by these two men, ten initial members formed the Amazon Delivery Workers Union on June 6. Although the delivery workers do not have a direct outsourcing contract with Amazon, they receive orders on how to work through Amazon’s AI and other means, and they are seeking collective bargaining on the grounds that Amazon is responsible for their employer. (Quotes above.)

According to the Freelance Survey conducted by Japan’s Cabinet Secretariat in February 2020, the domestic population of freelance workers is estimated at around 4.62 million. Of these, 2.48 million choose freelance work as a side job, outnumbering the 2.18 million who freelance as their main job.

Freelancers encompass a wide range of people, from the near-working poor to those who work a second job in search of growth and satisfaction, as well as highly specialized professionals who earn annual incomes in excess of 10 million yen. However, 40.4% of freelancers deal with only one company, and many of them seem to be so-called “freelancers in name only” who provide labour.

Under these circumstances, on May 26, three labour unions affiliated with sole proprietors, including the Uber Eats Union formed by Uber Eats delivery workers, launched the Freelance Union, a voluntary organization that seeks to promote solidarity among freelancers. The Freelance Union will propose policies to the government to protect the rights of freelance workers, many of whom are situated in unstable working environments.

The other two labour unions are the Yamaha Music Instructors Union for music instructors and the Yoggy Instructors Union for yoga instructors. Both are labour unions formed by people working as sole proprietors under the umbrella of a corporation.

In its prospectus, it states the following.

Many of us freelancers actually provide labour under the direction of clients and suppliers, which is not much different from employed work. Nevertheless, we are treated as if self-employed and do not receive any of the protections that we would receive if we were employed.

This means that companies are freed from having to bear costs (social insurance premiums, overtime pay, etc.) that they would otherwise have borne. In order to avoid these burdens, many companies use outsourcing contracts instead of employment contracts. This situation has long been singled out for improvement, but the situation is not improving.

Looking overseas, policies are being adopted to strengthen freelance protections and expand corporate responsibility. In Japan today, freelance workers are left with no rights. We believe that a society in which freelance workers can work with peace of mind is absolutely necessary.

The prospectus also identifies the following current problems:

  1. Delayed guarantees in the event of work-related accidents or unemployment
  2. Weak wage guarantees and response to harassment
  3. Weak pension systems and unreconstructed childcare leave systems, which can easily lead to difficulties in earning a living
  4. Unreasonable contracts concluded between companies and freelance workers, etc.

The newly established Freelance Union is not an umbrella organization for individual labour unions, but rather started as a voluntary organization to deepen mutual cooperation and make policy proposals to the government. In the future, the Union plans to become an actual labour union.

We hope that many more individual freelance labour unions will be formed and will join this organization. We also hope that they will deepen their cooperation with RENGO (Japanese Trade Union Confederation) and aim to realize their policies with great effect. In the future, we also hope that the union will play a leading role in labour–management negotiations and collective bargaining with companies.