Starbucks Workers in Japan Forge First Labour Union

Starbucks Workers in Japan Forge First Labour Union
Starbucks in Japan.

In a historic development unfolding in late November 2023, employees of Starbucks Coffee Japan Ltd. took a significant step by officially declaring the formation of the country's first-ever labour union as a member of the Shutoken Seinen Union (Toyko Metropolitan Youth Union). A pivotal moment in the worker rights advocacy, the decision came after the renowned coffeehouse chain refused to accept demands for higher wages during collective bargaining in August 2023.

 

Starbucks have a studded history of attempting to prevent worker organisation and union busting, with the first union only being established in 2021. Since then, more than 350 Starbucks have unionised, with the US NLRB (National Labour Relations Board) filing over 100 complaints against the business. It is accused of over 1000 illegal actions in the US alone, including illegally firing dozens of pro-union baristas and not bargaining in good faith. In 2023, the corporation closed 23 stores without prior notice to Workers United, the union behind a campaign to unionise. 

 

In Japan, unions are not pervasive. In particular, for those in part-time and temporary employment, only 16% of the workforce belong to a union. Though in November 2022, the Tokyo Bureau of Labour Relations Commission, in a monumental decision, ordered Uber to allow workers to form a union for UberEats after an extensive three year campaign organised by seventeen workers from the Tokyo Metropolitan Youth Union (TMYU). This is likely to change the landscape for collective bargaining and workplace organising. 

 

Kawabata Souri, a founding member of the TMYU, stated:

 

“Everyone is having a tough time making ends meet with a low-paid Starbucks job. So, we decided to form out union so that we can work with peace of mind”.

 

The fundamental objectives underlying the establishment of this Japanese labour union are multifaceted. Firstly, the union is steadfastly calling upon the company to address the pressing nature of wage levels, advocating for a substantial increase that reflects the contributions and dedication of the workforce. 

 

Simultaneously, the union aims to tackle the persistent challenge of labour shortages, seeking innovative solutions to enhance working conditions and foster a more sustainable and equitable work environment.

 

Souri, 23, who is employed at a Starbucks in Tokyo, who works as a person with disabilities said “The company tells us that the individuality of persons with disabilities can shine by working for Starbucks. In reality, however, we are always shorthanded and cannot afford to lose a minute, and we work at low pay.” In the seven and a half hours he works per day, he earns around 160,000 yen a month (around £860).

 

The employee’s union is also pushing for the right to express their individuality through the donning of badges and other accessories. According to representatives, this initiative not only serves as a symbolic representation of diversity within the workplace but also underscores the importance of fostering an inclusive and accepting atmosphere. 

 

Moreover, the advocacy extends to practical considerations, in particular for workers with disabilities, such as the provision of chairs at cash registers. This proposal aims to cater specifically to those with limited mobility, demonstrating a commitment to creating an accessible and accommodating space for both customers and employees alike.

 

Furthermore, the union has put forward a request for the implementation of a return scheme. This would offer a structured process for rehiring employees who may have temporarily left their position to pursue educational opportunities abroad. Often leaving positions after building relations and experience with employers are reset after leaving roles, even temporarily. Union member, Sorami Maeda, 23, worked part-time at Starbucks for four years before studying abroad, hoping to continue working upon their return to Japan but was concerned that they “would have to start from square zero (in terms of wages among other things). This is a big problem for students.”

 

Since, Starbucks’ have responded to Union demands by stating that the corporation is committed to providing “the best experience to our customers and fostering connections with the community. This attitude will not change. We will listen sincerely to the voices of [employees], respond to them, and move forward together”. 

 

Despite this assertion, Starbucks will have to work hard to engage in meaningful dialogue with unions, actively listen to employee voices, and collaboratively work towards implementing the proposed measures. The corporation has regularly publicly stated a commitment to appeasing the demands of it’s employees, whilst undermining collective bargaining attempts. 

 

The formation of Starbucks Coffee Japan Ltd. labour union stands as a beacon for workers’ rights. This is a historic moment for workers at Starbucks and in Japan. The successes of TMYU illustrates the strength of employee collective action, and also underscores a demand for the change of Starbucks labour practices. The company must ensure a commitment to engaging in meaningful dialogue. The corporation must move beyond rhetoric, rather than paying lip service to ethical labour practice and take concrete actions to address wage disparities, labour shortages, and foster a workplace that champions diversity and inclusion. By doing so, Starbucks Coffee Japan Ltd. has the opportunity to set a transformative precedent, nurturing fair, inclusive, and supportive environments that will surely benefit both its workforce and the company’s reputation (due to union boycotts and connection to the Occupation of Palestine) on a global scale. 

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