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No.309(2020/3/13)
Spread of New Coronavirus in Japan
---Labour and management strengthen efforts to prevent widespread infection---

Since being first reported in Wuhan, China, in December 2019, the new coronavirus (COVID-19) has spread on a global scale. On February 28 the World Health Organization (WHO) raised the level of risk assessment from "high" to "very high." The number of infections has been increasing in Japan as well, causing widespread anxiety among the public, and on February 25 the Japanese government announced a basic policy on measures to fight the new coronavirus. Japanese labour and management are strengthening their efforts to prevent the spread of infection in workplaces and cooperating in the government’s countermeasures.

On February 26 the Japanese government requested representatives of business and labour circles for their cooperation in implementing measures to combat the new coronavirus. The minister of economy, trade, and industry, minister of health, labour, and welfare, and minister of land, infrastructure, transport, and tourism jointly asked Chairman Hiroaki Nakanishi of Keidanren (Japan Business Federation), President Rikio Kozu of RENGO (Japanese Trade Union Confederation), and others to help promote effective measures to prevent contagion, including the staggering of commuting and telework. Keidanren Chairman Nakanishi replied, "I think this is an important time for preventing the spread of infection. We must forcefully implement countermeasures together with working people."

In response to the government’s request, RENGO President Kozu stated that "Labour and management will cooperate to prevent spread of the disease." As the representative of workers, he also urged the following four steps: (1) Measures to combat the disease must not exert an adverse impact on the wages and working conditions of workers, including nonregular workers; (2) adequate working hours management must be implemented for telework and other forms of at-home work; (3) the use of face masks by workers in their jobs and when coming into contact with customers must not be prohibited; and (4) the government must supply accurate information relating to its measures and subsidies to companies.

There are concerns in Japanese labour circles that the spread of the new coronavirus will have a negative impact on this year’s annual spring labour struggle to raise wages. In a press conference, RENGO President Kozu stressed that wage-hike demands in the spring labour struggle were essential for improving the livelihood of workers and that RENGO’s policy remains unchanged. This issue was also discussed in the Diet. In response to a question from a RENGO-backed Diet member, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, calling for the understanding of employers, said that "Precisely at a time like this, I think economic vitalization through wage hikes is necessary."

Japan has been threatened before by infectious diseases that have broken out overseas. In recent years, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), which started in China in 2002, spread around the world, infecting more than 8,000 people and causing about 800 deaths,1 although no cases were reported in Japan. However, the outbreak of new influenza (A/H1N1) in 2009, which is said to have had its roots in Mexico or the United States, resulted in 1,565 cases of serious infection and 203 deaths in Japan.2 That experience led to the enactment in 2012 of the Act on Special Measures for Pandemic Influenza and New Infectious Diseases Preparedness and Response, with labour and management joining its discussion.

In response to the new coronavirus, the Japanese government called on elementary, junior high, and senior high schools nationwide to close from March 2. It also announced such measures as a subsidy of up to 8,830 yen per day for workers who had to take leave from their jobs to care for children. In the light of past experiences, labour and management are promoting efforts to prevent the further spread of the new coronavirus and quell contagion.

  1. Announcement of the WHO
  2. Statistics of the Japanese Ministry of Health, Labour, and Welfare
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