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Union says Japan workers told not to wear masks, put on unpaid leave amid virus

Masked people are seen on their commutes on the Yaesu side of Tokyo Station on Feb. 25, 2020, in this unrelated image. (Mainichi/Masahiro Ogawa)

TOKYO -- A union in Japan which allows individual membership has received dozens of consultations about new coronavirus-related workplace issues since establishing a helpline for workers on Feb. 24.

Among 36 calls taken by the Tokyo-based Japan Union by Feb. 25, there were people saying that their work wouldn't let them wear a mask on the job and others reporting that they were being told to stay home without pay.

According to Japan Union, it started getting queries about the virus in early February, and on Feb. 24, four union employees were tasked with responding. The organization reported that many consultations were about the wearing of masks and time away from work.

The Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare says that if a company is making employees who could continue to fulfill their duties take time off at its own discretion, then generally speaking, benefits associated with time away from work must be paid.

Japan Union's consultation service has reportedly had calls from a wide range of industries. A worker in the medical profession is said to have told them, "I've been ordered to stay home without pay for two weeks after returning from a trip abroad." Another, a woman employed as a dispatch worker, said, "I've been told that (because of the virus' spread) I don't have to work, but I won't get paid during that period."

Regarding masks, a woman who works as a receptionist in the northernmost prefecture of Hokkaido reported, "I've asked my company to let me wear a mask, but they're not giving me permission. They said that I'm the face of the company, and that it would be rude to customers."

Another, a woman working at a restaurant in Tokyo, was quoted as saying, "I was told by work, 'Customers won't see your smile, so don't wear one.'"

The advisers on the consultation line have been telling callers that they should seek permission to wear masks from their employers on the basis that they are obliged to allow it based on a clause concerning "Consideration to the Safety of a Worker" in the Labor Contracts Act.

There have also been consultations from people who are uncomfortable working with colleagues who have recently returned from trips overseas, and another reporting concerns that a co-worker with a Chinese wife had been subject to bullying.

Ari Sugano, the union's executive board chairperson, said, "We want to make sure that workers' positions are protected by helping them stand up for their rights so that they are not forced into unfavorable conditions by those who try to take advantage of the pneumonia outbreak."

The helpline is taking calls on the following numbers: 03-3604-5983 and 03-3604-1294 and by email at union@jca.apc.org (Japanese language only).

Elsewhere, the labor ministry on Feb. 14 set up special virus-related consultation services at each of its Labor Bureaus in prefectures across the country.

According to the ministry, in the seven-day period from Feb. 14 it received a total of 1,276 queries nationwide. Among them, 786 were said to have been from business owners, with many asking what benefits and other obligations they had to provide to employees in the event that staff had to be away from work.

The ministry has also put up a Q&A section on its website about benefits to employees off work and how to introduce remote working schemes.

(Japanese original by Harumi Kimoto, Integrated Digital News Center)

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