Photo/IllutrationFirefighters train in Sanda, Hyogo Prefecture. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

The International Labor Organization is pressing Japan to join the ranks of other advanced nations and allow firefighters the right to organize.

But Tokyo refuses to grant that right on grounds it would disturb the chain of command, particularly in times of emergency, when firefighters are often mobilized for rescue and relief operations along with police and the Self-Defense Forces.

Among major industrialized nations, Japan is the only country that does not allow firefighters to form trade unions even though it ratified the ILO’s Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organize Convention.

Firefighters in Japan are regarded as having a similar status as police forces, who remain an exception to the convention.

During the ILO’s general assembly in Geneva last June, government representatives and labor organizations criticized Japan, saying that granting firefighters the right to organize is important to guarantee their free voices at the workplace.

The ILO called on Japan to submit an improvement plan by November, the first such demand in 10 years, but Tokyo only reiterated its traditional stance.

The right to organize is designated in Japan’s Constitution.

However, firefighters and police officers employed by prefectural governments are regarded as exceptions under the Local Public Service Law due to fears command structures could be compromised.

Not being allowed to form a labor union is increasingly being viewed as an issue among firefighters and other staffers who have suffered from sexual or power harassment.

A questionnaire sent to firefighters and staff in fire stations nationwide in 2017 by the Fire and Disaster Management Agency found that 17.5 percent of men had suffered power harassment over the preceding 12 months, while 28 percent of women said they had been sexually harassed.

“Even though staff members are struggling with harassment, they have no place to report their complaints,” said Naoki Murakami, chairman of the National Council of Japanese Firefighters and Ambulance Workers.

Shinichi Ago, a professor at Ritsumeikan University specializing in international labor law, said: “Some European nations give the military and police the right to organize. Not allowing the same right in Japan amounts to a form of power harassment.”