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Dispatches from the labor front line

by Jeff Kingston

This timely and excellent analysis of the changing employment system in Japan greatly improves our understanding of what it is like to be a dispatched worker (haken) in contemporary Japan and discourse about nonregular employment, of which haken is only one of various categories such as temporary, contract, part-time, etc.

AN EMERGING NON-REGULAR LABOR FORCE IN JAPAN: The Dignity of Dispatched Workers, by Huiyan Fu. Routledge (U.K.), 2011, 192 pp., £75 (hardcover)

Currently the government is debating reforms targeting nonregular workers as single mothers and others lobby for various improvements such as lifting restrictions that exclude them from company pension plans. Employers resist such reforms precisely because the near doubling of nonregular employment as a percentage of all jobs over the past two decades is driven by the need for cost savings, a shift facilitated by deregulation. With one-third of the workforce presently engaged on relatively unfavorable terms as nonregular employees with low wages in dead-end jobs with little job security and benefits, the stakes of improving conditions are high since “the existing safety net and welfare systems … are devised mainly to protect regular workers.”

The most powerful sections of this superb book draw on the author’s fieldwork as a haken at two companies. There is a rich literature discussing the causes and consequences of expanding nonregular employment in Japan, but nothing quite like this fly-on-the-wall perspective in English that enables readers to understand the experiences and perspectives of individual workers. It is one thing to make sweeping generalizations about the implications of various categories of nonregular employment, quite another to embed oneself in the situation and report from the front lines.

Huiyan Fu pulls back the veil and relates her experiences as a haken. She is trilingual and was an Oxford University doctoral candidate — thus not a typical applicant — but she recalls her share of frustrations and time wasted on tedious tests and rigorous interviews.

Once registered it was then a matter of finding a client seeking someone with her skills. Not as easy as it would seem, explaining why dispatched workers tend to register at multiple agencies. At one potential client firm she was interviewed to be an assistant to the company president, in this case a woman who badgered her so relentlessly that later she informed the agency director who accompanied her that she would not take the job under any circumstances. He commiserated, saying, “What a horrible ‘battle-ax’ (gamigami onna)!”

The stories told over lunches or drinks with colleagues are a fascinating window into the lives and aspirations of dispatched workers. Fu compellingly breaks down stereotypes and generalizations, conveying the reality of diversity that is so often buried beneath statistic-driven or policy-oriented research. By giving a voice to the haken, who are overwhelmingly female and young, we come to understand not only their attitudes toward work but also their relationships and dreams.

This finely grained portrayal enables us to better appreciate shifting career perspectives among young workers and how haken are not just passive victims of the system, but are also actively developing their skills and experience as a means to realize professional ambitions in ways their elders seldom did.

Others, however, see their jobs as an accessory, one that pays the bills, but also enhances their image. Regular employment at a large prestigious company might be out of reach for many college grads, but haken jobs provide entry into such name brand firms and the status they confer. For some women, she learns, it’s all about finding that elusive “Mr. Right,” while others are just bankrolling that next journey overseas.

One riveting vignette relates the public confrontation of a slacker haken who worked the system to her advantage, shirking tasks, dawdling and putting in as much overtime as possible. When confronted by her manager, she exploded in a gripping scene that breaks down assumptions about deferential, meek employees. The next day all was “forgotten,” or at least ignored, perhaps demonstrating that haken can leverage employers’ concerns about appearing to exploit their nonregular employees.

The media focuses on the frictions between regular and nonregular workers, but Fu thinks this overstates the situation. This was a central theme in the popular television drama “Haken no Hinkaku” (Dispatched Worker Dignity) that aired in 2007. This drama helped promote positive public perceptions of haken because the protagonist is a super-haken who outperforms her regular employee counterparts, can repair elevators and beat her boss at kendo while practicing flamenco in her spare time.

Fu interrogates prevailing discourses about nonregular employment and the agencies that dispatch them. She notes that some regular workers envy the freedom of nonregular workers who don’t have to put in unpaid overtime, can leave work early and in some cases don’t make that much less in monthly salary.

She points out that not all haken are equal; some are regular employees at their agency and get paid even between stints at client firms. We also learn that haken agencies have a dubious reputation because of various scandals and illegal practices, but that the agencies she dealt with proved scrupulous and protective of worker rights.

The fascinating micro-level observations buttress the macro-level arguments the author makes about nonregular employment. In her view, media representations often distort the reality and are more concerned with buzzwords than nuanced realities.

For example, the media trumpets how haken are a factor in widening income disparities, but they are such a small percentage of nonregular workers (7.7 percent) and a tiny fraction of all workers (2.6 percent) that they are not a major factor in this trend. However, the concentration of women and young workers in nonregular employment overall is a factor in gender and generational disparities.

Fu also presents wage figures revealing that some 86 percent of haken earn less than ¥3 million a year, well below the average salary for regular workers of ¥5.3 million in 2007.

It is also significant that her fieldwork ended before the Lehman Shock in 2008 and the massive termination of haken contracts that ensued.

Fu sensibly stresses the advantages of being a participant observer because the “more empathy we develop with ordinary people’s life, the easier it is to think explicitly about the taken-for-granted assumptions that link narratives, actions and silences in day-to-day interactions. Herein lies the importance of long-term, immersed ethnographic research.”

Thus it is strange that she dismisses the term “working poor” as a media buzzword. Certainly the estimated 10 million Japanese who earn less than ¥2 million a year, including many single mothers, would be surprised to be categorized as a mere buzzword.

As Fu acknowledges, her experience was limited to the relatively advantaged “middle class” of haken, and one suspects that if she engaged with workers struggling to make ends meet she would be more empathetic to them precisely because her empathy is one of the core strengths of this fascinating anthropological study.

Jeff Kingston is director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.