Labor Report from Meiji Japan (11)

  Proposed Factory Act in Japan

TAKANO, Fusataro.

  Hongo, Tokyo, Japan, November 28,1897. After many years of perfect indifference to the welfare of laborers, the Japanese government has at last awakened to its proper duty and is showing a disposition to stretch helping hands to the downtrodden people by enacting a factory law purporting to remove great evils rampant under the factory system in vogue in this country. The framing of the bill, it is reported, is nearly completed by the Department of Agriculture and Commerce, and it will be presented to the coming session of the Diet, which is to meet within six or seven weeks, for its consideration. Owing to special precaution taken by the government to keep secret the details of the proposed bill, its scope cannot be fully disclosed at present writing. However, its essential points are made known by frequent interviews with officials of the department, and they are, in the main, as follows:

(1) Prohibition of child labor under 10 years.
(2) Limitation of working hours to ten for children under 15 years.
(3) Prohibition of night work for children under 15 years.
(4) Limitation of working hours for adults at twelve except under special agreement.
(5) Prohibition of employment of women and children under 15 years for work detrimental to their health; the works to be thus subjected shall be determined by the Minister of State for Agriculture and Commerce.
(6) Safety provisions for dangerous machinery.
(7) Liability of employer in case of accident, fatal or otherwise, of employe in discharging his duty.
(8) Issue of certificate to each operative by municipal authorities, the same to be deposited with the employer while the holder of the certificate is working for him, and the employer, on the other hand, is required to hire none but certificate holders.
(9) Inspection of factory construction by the authorities.
(10) Creation of factory inspectorship.
(11) Factories to be subjected by the proposed act are those employing over fifty workingmen, women and children.

    By a glance at the above enumeration, it will be seen that the proposed law is fairly well directed against the root of the flagrant evils, and by its strict enforcement, it is hoped, many thousands of innocent lives will be rescued. However, there are two features embodied in the bill which completely obliterate any enthusiasm that our working people may be inclined to display for the bill, viz, the issue of the certificate and personnel of factory inspector.
    It is claimed by the officials that the issue of certificate is made necessary in order to put an end to the practice of enticing out an employer's contracted operatives by another employer. Scarcity of operatives consequent upon sudden growth of machine industry (by some it is asserted that the causes of this scarcity are poor wages paid and terrible conditions of work exacted) brought the evil practice into prominence, and all employers are resorting quite freely to this sneaking method in violation of an agreement entered into between themselves to refrain from the practice. As a matter of fact, hundreds and thousands of dollars are spent annually by each operator for this item of expenditure. In some cases as much as twenty yen (ten American dollars) is paid to an agent for every skilled operative he has successfully enticed out from other mills. This offering of large reward was the cause of pernicious methods of victimizing operatives practised by agents. The seeming benefit by enabling operatives to secure a higher rate of wages by shifting employers is not, in reality, a source of material advantages to operatives, but of aggravating their sufferings. Indeed, the practice brought disaster upon operatives materially, morally as well as physically. The glittering offer made at the time of inducement is never meant, in some cases, to be fulfilled and, in other cases, to be continued for any considerable period. Furthermore, by running away from their employers, operatives forfeit their rights of claim for monthly deposits made by them with employers. Coupled with these the mental anxiety and physical suffering that were undergone by run-away operatives through fear of detection and apprehension together with a fact that the practice breeds a habit of faithlessness among operatives go to condemn the practice as a destructive agent and its existence is a disgrace to Japanese workers and detrimental to their true interests. That the issue of certificates provided in the proposed bill serve as an effectual means to stop the practice needs no elaborate argument, but the effect of these certificates, it is reasonably feared, will go far beyond its legitimate scope, nay, it is likely to prove a curse for operatives, a curse that eclipses the evils of the practice. As noted in the enumeration, the proposed bill requires operatives to deposit their certificates with employers under whom they are to serve and employers to employ only certificate holders. These two requirements many serve to hinder free movement of labor and freedom to strike by unreasonable retention of certificates by employers. True, the proposed bill is said to empower factory inspectors to prevent this unreasonable retention of certificates, but they will do so only when operatives bring their grievances before them; in other words, when the lamb finds sufficient courage to brave the lion's wrath. Moreover, the personnel of factory inspectors is against the operatives. Numerous hints made by the department officials give a fair ground to suppose that the law will empower the chief police to act in the capacity of factory inspector......the police, whose inimical attitude toward working people has indeed a world-wide reputation. Any semblance of justice toward workingmen in their hands is something forbidden in our present era. In fact, prospective appointment of chief police to factory inspectorship tends to diminish, if not completely wipe out, the beneficial effect of the proposed act upon operatives, and a strict enforcement of the act is also transferred to the domain of the doubtful.
    But, however objectionable the proposed act may be, the question now confronting Japanese workers is whether they shall receive any protection, no matter how trifling it may be, or else to go without any protection whatever. The bill as proposed by the Government is in the nature of an ultimatum to working people, in that the Government is willing to protect that much and no more. Nor is there anything to be surprised by this attitude of the Government. The truth is that the proposition of enacting a factory law by the present Government has, at first, sounded so unnatural that we took it as a mere rumor. Further investigation revealed the fact that the revolting conditions of factory system in its special bearing with public health and morality, forced the Government to take some step of lessening the evil effect. That being the only motive that had driven the Government to frame the bill, all other considerations for the interest of workers are not recognized. No wonder then that we see before us the crippled legislation.
    While some friends of labor claim that as the bill has to embody those objectionable features, it is for the interest of working-men that it should be rejected, the writer is disposed to think that however objectionable the bill is it should be accepted not with whole satisfaction but with a sort of best bargain procurable under present industrial as well as political conditions. Under existing conditions our workers are not enjoying anything like freedom of movement or right to strike. Nobody will lose who has none will rule in this case and our workers will be found gainers of the scanty protection afforded by the proposed legislation. [meaning not clear]
    Turning our attention to the camp of employers in regard to the proposed bill, we notice wanton opposition already manifested by them. That monster association of cotton spinning operators was the first to declare against the bill, and it has already sent a deputation to the department, basing its opposition on the time worn plea that the proposed law will deal a death blow to the industry. (The writer has a mind to tell them that if the existing evils of child labor, long hours, etc, are necessary for the existence of the industry, it is for the interest of the Nation that such industry should be abolished, and the sooner this was done, the better for the Nation.) Another kind of opposition manifested in the camp of employers is based upon that "sacred" doctrine of laisser faire. They say that interference of government is disastrous to the growth of national industry. The comical part of this argument is that among those who are thus arguing there are great numbers who are engaging in occupations which are receiving government subsidies. Still another opposition is advanced by a knowing class of employers who claim that prohibition of child labor and limitation of working hours will cause great suffering to workers, as if those conditions arc great blessings to workers; and that the relation, of employer and employe is not so strained as it is in western countries, quite forgetting to note the numerous strikes that occurred during the past year and a half. All these oppositions are now combining and making effort to influence the government to withhold the bill from presentation to the Diet. While we are satisfied that the government will not shift its position owing to the effort made by operators, it is uncertain how far it will go in upholding the bill in the Diet. If it takes active step to push the bill as it does with other state measures, the bill will pass notwithstanding the protest of employers. But, in contrary, if it assumes indifferent attitude, there creeps in the corrupting influence of operators and not only the fate of the bill will be doomed, but also all the chances for legislative protection of working people for years to come. For, once corruption of legislators practiced for a question that concerns employer and employe, it will give rise to the same practice on future occasions when a question involving interests of capital and labor is presented for their consideration, and workers, who are disfranchised by the existing voting qualification, will find themselves always worsted and their cause hopelessly beaten. Thus, it will be seen that the proposed bill which itself is not capable of commanding great attention of workers and their sympathizers may stand as a forerunner of coming events in which Japanese workers engage in hopeless political struggles against capitalists. We, the friends of labor, with strained eyes are watching events that are happening daily and are awaiting with a thought of apprehension of the day when this would-be memorable measure is presented for its consideration in the Diet.

Special Correspondent of the American Federationist.
American Federationist,IV,No.11 (January,1898),250-252;
Reprinted in Railroad Trainmen's Journal,XV,No.2
(February,1898),112-116; Partially reprinted
in Gunton's Magazine,X1V(March,1898),173-179,
under title "Labor Troubles in Japan".

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