Photo/Illutration Senior members of the Sapporo General Union speak at a news conference in Obihiro, Hokkaido, on Feb. 24. The union says it has asked Hanabatake Ranch to retract a damages claim on Vietnamese workers and apologize to them. (Shigehito Nakazawa)

OBIHIRO, Hokkaido--A popular dairy products company in Hokkaido is seeking damages from Vietnamese workers who went on strike demanding better working conditions in what a labor union is calling a retaliatory action against them. 

Hanabatake Ranch has filed a claim for a total of 2 million yen ($17,350), the Sapporo General Union said on Feb. 24 at a news conference in Obihiro in Hokkaido.

The company, based in Nakasatsunai village, produces dairy products including a hit “raw caramel.” 

Hanabatake Ranch viewed the strike as “neglect of their work duties” because the workers had not formed a labor union.

The Sapporo union that is supporting the Vietnamese workers said the strike “was the correct action to improve working conditions.”

According to the union, 38 Vietnamese workers went on strike at the company’s Tokachi No. 2 factory in Nakasatsunai on Jan. 26.

They protested a hike in utilities cost at the company dormitory. There was not an intra-company labor union formed at the time.

The workers notified the company about an impending strike on Jan. 25 via a group chat system.

They asked the company president, Yoshitake Tanaka, for corrective measures on Jan. 26, the union said.

The company later told the workers it would change the utilities charge back to the previous rate.

The company then notified 40 workers, including those who did not participate in the strike, that their contracts will expire on March 15.

The company has put four of the 40 workers on a seven-day suspension because they violated employment regulations.

The company is also seeking a total of 2 million yen from the four because they “agitated other employees and stopped the factory assembly line.”

After the strike, the four workers joined the Sapporo union and formed a branch. On Feb. 24, they formally notified the company that they had formed a union. 

Hajime Suzuki, a vice chair of the Sapporo General Union, said at the news conference, “The strike was launched before a labor union was formally formed, but it has validity because its purpose was to maintain and improve working conditions.”

The company’s “retaliatory action is not acceptable,” Suzuki said.

The Sapporo union has demanded that the company drop the damages claim and apologize to the workers because the act is a violation of the Labor Union Law and the Constitution, which guarantees collective bargaining rights.

In response, Tanaka said, “A strike is an action by a labor union. Missing work suddenly without a prescribed procedure is neglect of work duties. We have taken strict measures because the act is considered an interference of business.”