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‘CPE’ by stealth: the state of youth jobs in Japan

by Noriko Hama

French students are victorious. They have managed to push the infamous “first-time employment contract” (“contrat premiere embauche”) out of the window.

Prime minister Dominique de Villepin, who proposed the CPE idea, is in the dog house. His authority is in tatters and his humiliation is complete. The students are no longer faced with the prospect of having to sign contracts that allow employers to give them the sack for no good reason during the first two years of employment.

Splendid. Good to know that student revolt still has the power to shake establishments. Yet it remains to be seen whether their victory was actually to their ultimate benefit.

Have they shot themselves in the foot by killing off a piece legislation that would have made it easier for companies to hire first-time job-seekers? Was this only a Pyrrhic victory after all? Only time will tell.

Meanwhile, here are some interesting statistics about youth employment in Japan.

In 2003, the unemployment rate for the 15- to 24-year-old age group stood at 10.1 percent. By January this year, that figure had come down to 7.8 percent. For the 25- to 34-year-olds, the January figure was 5.2 percent, compared with 6.4 percent in 2003.

This must make the young people in France really green with envy, not to mention M. Villepin. In life, however, things are never quite what they seem, and this is more so in the world of economic statistics.

On closer inspection, those seemingly golden unemployment figures begin to tell a more complicated story. For it is apparently the case that while young Japanese may now have jobs, the quality of those jobs is a bit of a problem.

Many of them are apt to be temporary jobs in which the worker is underpaid. Such jobs have little security and are virtually devoid of any future prospects. Once you are locked into the cycle of flitting from one job of this type to another, it becomes increasingly more difficult to get out of the situation, and this perpetual motion of uncertainty holds true for many young people who are now out of the official unemployment statistics.

Even in the latest count, with the overall economy definitely on the mend, over 2 million people continue to work under extremely temporary and uncertain conditions. We have taken to calling such people “freeters,” a term that came into fashion a few years ago.

This word has now entered the lexicon of official labor statistics.

The government’s definition of the term has it that they are either people on temporary and short-term contracts, or those who are currently unemployed but actively seeking temporary and short-term contract jobs.

It is a sorry state of affairs when people actually have to be actively looking for temporary jobs. Admittedly, there are some people who are deliberately shunning permanent employment because they feel unable to cope with the stress and strictures involved. But this does not make the plight of the more involuntary variety of freeters any easier.

Thus, while the French were looking for de jure measures to create nonpermanent job opportunities for the young, it could be argued that the Japanese have been getting away with it on a de facto basis all along. CPE by stealth, as it were.

How all this works out in the end is really very difficult to tell.

A job is certainly better than no job, but is being permanently employed temporarily an acceptable mode of existence for young people? Maybe the French do not have that much to envy Japan for after all.