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Japan and Germany: partners in labor pain

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Although the word “arbeit,” meaning work, is commonly used in Germany and Japan, which adopted the word, recent debates on labor in these countries show that their attitudes toward work are markedly different.

But the way in which each nation resolves its particular problems could prove mutually beneficial.

In Japan, a series of bills recently presented to the Diet could potentially alter the landscape of working life. The bills are a response to the dramatic rise in part-time workers over the past two decades, a growth that occurred after labor laws were heavily revised in 1986.

Those revisions had the effect of creating a dual-track labor market, with one stream following the traditional, seniority-based lifetime employment model, and the other opting to pursue noncareer-oriented temporary work.

Over time, the first stream has steadily eroded as more and more workers migrated to part-time work.

Exploitation boom

But part-time work has not necessarily meant part-time hours in Japan. In effect, this distinction has been exploited by employers who pay less salary and benefits while receiving performance about equal to full-time employees.

The comparatively lower costs involved with hiring part-timers have produced a boom in this type of labor. A recent survey by the Japanese government indicates nonregular employees account for nearly one-third of the entire workforce, one of the highest ratios among developed economies.

If passed, the new laws will protect part-timers by obliging employers to offer more benefits and promotions, especially where part-timers are doing work on a similar level to regular employees.

Another series of laws before the legislature is addressing the question of overtime.

Japan by far generates the highest amount of overtime work in the industrialized world. In the manufacturing sector, for example, Japanese workers average 1,975 hours on the job per year, compared with 1,525 in Germany and 1,929 in the United States.

Working to death

A series of figures from the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry says the average full-time employee in Japan worked 2,041 hours in 2006.

But overtime is not restricted to the factory floor. In the case of white-collar jobs, overtime rates have been skyrocketing — as have the number of cases of “karoshi,” or death from overwork.

Although the labor ministry has only been keeping karoshi records since 2003, the number of cases hit 336 in 2005, up from 319 two years prior.

To combat this trend, proposed laws would compel employers to pay overtime wages at a rate of time-and-a-half when said hours exceed 80 per month. In other words, based on an average of 22 work days per month, overtime would kick in after an extra 3 1/2 hours on the job each day.

Not exactly a generous stipend, especially from a German perspective.

Germany’s war legacy

People’s attitude toward work is drastically more relaxed in Germany, where the concept of the 35-hour work week has been in place since the late 1990s. It has a legal structure that favors workers so much that there have been scandals over the matter at large employers.

German labor laws sought to protect workers as the country worked to rebuild itself from the ravages of World War II. One provision was to ensure that workers were represented on the management boards of given companies.

In fact, laws allow for up to half a company’s board of directors to be assigned to labor representatives if a company has more than 2,000 employees. No other country in Europe has such laws in place.

Although this arrangement has certainly achieved the goal of protecting workers, it has fostered a relationship that is all too cozy for some.

Accusations of bribery and corruption have popped up in companies like Volkswagen and Deutsche Bahn, the German railway.

Labor representatives in such positions often receive the same perks as the executives — like company cars or private secretaries — in stark contrast to their coworkers on the shop floor.

In combination with this high integration of management and labor, German laws make it extremely difficult to dismiss employees, just as in countries like France.

The result is a secure workforce, and therefore, happy citizens.

Or is it?

Less work but fewer jobs

The backdrop to this debate is the persistently high unemployment rate. As of March 2007 there were 4.1 million Germans out of work, for a rate of 9.8 percent. Although this is a considerable improvement from the 12.6 percent of February 2005, it is more than twice the 4.1 percent rate in Japan, according to the most recent data.

If we compare the two countries more closely based on such figures, two distinct pictures emerge.

Germany — where employees work less (1,525 hours per year, about 22 percent less than their Japanese counterparts) and are twice as likely to be unemployed (9.8 percent vs. 4.1 percent) — and Japan, where people are literally and figuratively working themselves to death.

Attaining a balance

It isn’t hard to envision a middle ground in both countries that enhances both people’s quality of life and companies’ bottom lines without extracting too high a price from either party.

Could Japanese companies allow part-time workers more freedom to choose their own working times? Can German companies achieve a healthier separation of labor and management?

Although the answers to these questions will be determined domestically, time and again we have seen that actions in one country can have consequences elsewhere. Even in countries where the word arbeit has taken on such different meanings.