A union leader at Amazon’s Japan offices has filed a lawsuit against the company for wrongful termination, alleging he was unfairly targeted for his organizing activity. Masafumi Ito, who worked at the tech giant as a salesperson for more than seven years, was fired last month after being placed on a series of performance improvement plans, or PIPs, which he alleges were a ruse to force him out of the company. Ito is seeking to have his job reinstated and force Amazon to pay his lost wages.

“I joined Amazon because I love the company. I want to return to work and continue to contribute,” Ito said at a press conference in Tokyo earlier this week. “I brought this case because I want to change the work environment where people are suddenly fired for unfair reasons. My colleagues cannot work safely under such an environment.”

Ito and other members of the Amazon Japan Union — who organized as part of the Tokyo Managers’ Union (MU) in 2015 — say the company weaponizes PIPs to arbitrarily dismiss employees, particularly those who challenge its relentless work culture. Amazon argues the plans help staff develop and learn, but their use has been controversial at the tech giant in Tokyo, as well as the U.S., for years. Ito’s case, which has received significant attention in Japan, will now test whether Amazon’s practices can survive in the country.

Ito’s role at Amazon was to bring more electronics stores onto the company’s shopping platform and encourage them to use Amazon Prime. He said he performed well, but managers still subjected him to a series of PIPs and disciplinary actions over the past few years. Ito was finally fired in March, after he failed to meet the requirements of his latest evaluation, and managers told him he showed no desire to improve.

Ito’s lawyer, Kazutaka Umeda, argues that Amazon instead bullied and harassed him in an effort to get rid of him. Umeda said that, toward the end of his tenure at the tech giant, Ito was barred from attending team meetings and lost access to an internal tool crucial for his job. Umeda said that Ito was fired not because of his lack of achievement but as retaliation for joining the union and questioning the company’s work practices. Amazon Japan said that it could not comment on individual employee cases in an earlier statement to Rest of World.

Japan has strict labor regulations that prevent employers from firing someone without reasonable cause. “Unless the employee violated the work rules or lost motivation so badly that the situation did not change, even after measures such as reassignment to a less burdensome department were taken, or the job itself was eliminated due to the closure of the department, dismissal is not allowed,” said Munetomo Ando, a professor at Nihon University in Japan, who specializes in labor economics and contract theory.

Kaoruko Ishibushi

In recent years, workers in Japan have won several lawsuits brought against foreign companies that used PIPs or similar disciplinary tools. In 2013, the Tokyo High Court ruled in favor of a Bloomberg reporter who sued the company after he was let go for failing to meet a story quota the publication had set. Between 2012 and 2015, IBM was sued multiple times by employees who were fired after failing work evaluations. The tech company lost all of the cases at trial.

While Japanese labor law technically allows employers to dismiss workers with a few weeks’ notice, the courts constrain how that power can be used, explained Leon Wolff, a professor at the Queensland University of Technology, who studies Japanese law. “In short, it is a power that must not be abused,” he said.

Takeshi Suzuki, the chairman of the Tokyo MU, said that, over the last two years, there’s been a sharp increase in the number of Amazon employees asking the union for help with PIPs. He said he requested that Amazon disclose the percentage of workers who stay at the company after being placed on one of the plans, but has yet to receive a response.

“Amazon probably ranks a certain percentage of its employees as ‘less effective’ every year and uses PIPs as a weapon to force them to leave,” Suzuki said. “Some employees have been forced to resign from their jobs on irrational grounds, such as bad attitude or not fitting in with Amazon’s culture, even though they were making good achievements. Amazon’s inhuman treatment of its employees is problematic, and forcing them to leave, especially targeting union leaders, is union busting.”

At the press conference in Tokyo, a current marketing manager at Amazon, who asked to remain anonymous for privacy reasons, said her job made her clinically depressed. In 2019, after being harassed by her boss, suffering through long hours, and experiencing other problems, she asked to be transferred to another department. Instead, the employee said, her boss put her on a secret “coaching plan,” which serves as a prerequisite to a PIP. They also began shutting her out of meetings and abruptly canceled the project she was working on.

“My husband asked me one day, ‘Your hands are shaking all the time, what’s wrong?’ I was so stressed that I couldn’t sleep at night, lost my appetite, and my eyes and hands started to twitch,” said the worker, who is also the deputy leader of the Amazon Japan Union. “At my husband’s suggestion, I went to see a doctor, who diagnosed me with depression.”

The worker has been on medical leave since September. Her lawyer, Shizuka Onoyama, said she is now applying to have her depression recognized as a workplace accident. “I want more people to know that this kind of situation exists within Amazon, the company that provides the services we all use so conveniently, and it needs to be improved,” Onoyama said.

Ito said he was first put on a coaching plan in 2019, around the same time as the marketing manager. Soon afterward, he was disciplined for allegedly disclosing confidential company information to his business partners. Ito said sharing the data was necessary to onboard a new client and that he had done nothing wrong. He later filed a complaint with the Tokyo District Court, which ruled in his favor last year. Amazon appealed the decision and put Ito onto another PIP (the appeal is still pending).

Workers in Japan are now anxiously watching what will happen with Ito’s lawsuit. His case was covered by a number of major media outlets in the country, including in a Yahoo! Japan article that has received almost 1,000 comments. The case is especially noteworthy because some domestic Japanese companies have begun using PIPs, including the electronics manufacturer Ricoh. “We are watching closely how Amazon’s PIP will be judged by the judiciary,” said a Ricoh worker in his 40s who asked to remain anonymous for privacy reasons. “If it is judged to be legal, we are very scared because we, like Mr. Ito, may be fired for irrational reasons.”