Lawyers decry expansion of poverty, seek remedy


Kyodo News

Poverty is expanding in Japan, with people more likely than ever to be employed on a temporary basis and making low wages, the Japan Federation of Bar Associations said during a two-day meeting on human rights.

Making matters worse, the trend has been crossing generational lines due to a lack of a sufficient social security system, the lawyers’ group warned.

As a result of deregulation of labor dispatch services, the number of temporary workers has reached 18.9 million, the association said, basing its findings on statistics from the government and other sources. These workers account for a record 35.5 percent of all employees, compared with 21.6 percent in 1992, it said.

The association stressed that 43.8 percent of people who got their first job between 2002 and 2007 were classified as having “irregular” employment, and wages for temporary workers is only 50 percent to 60 percent of what regular employees make.

The expansion of temporary work has stirred demand for social security, but “the government has curbed social security expenses by cutting unemployment insurance benefits or child-care allowances under its structural reform policy, increasing the number of ‘working poor’ ” who cannot maintain a minimum standard of living, the association said.

Panelists at a symposium during the lawyers’ annual meeting, which ended Friday, reported on the hardships facing temporary workers.

“Such workers fear dismissal on a day-to-day basis once they are not needed, and are forced to drift from workplace to workplace nationwide with low wages,” said Makoto Kawazoe, a staff member of a labor union that supports the working poor.

“As many of them do not have employment insurance, they have to immediately find another job once they are fired, even if the working conditions are bad,” he said. “Working under harsh conditions deteriorates their health, but they still need to work” because they are not involved in an unemployment compensation system.

A 50-year-old man, who did not want his identity publicized, told the gathering how he went from being a temporary worker to unemployed and homeless.

After graduating from college, he said, he got a job at a food company in Kyushu that went bankrupt after six years.

He became a worker dispatched by an agency at an auto parts factory in Gifu Prefecture in 2000 at the age of 41.

He worked 12 hours a day six days a week but took home only ¥150,000 to ¥160,000 a month. He performed the same tasks as regular employees but was not guaranteed pay hikes or bonuses.

Eight years later, he found it difficult to work due to a tendon-related malady and declining vision, and he was fired.

After leaving the company’s housing without any savings, a new job or a place to live, he ended up living on the street.

“I slept in the waiting room of a station during the day, and drank water like crazy at a park to allay my hunger,” he said. “I had never dreamed of becoming a homeless person. I went through painful days.

“People like me fall into life on the street once they lose their jobs,” the man, who once again is working on a dispatch basis, said. “I hope we can be treated more humanely as we work in the same way as regular employees do.”

Kawazoe stressed the necessity of creating a system in which unskilled workers can receive vocational training and guaranteed aid while they are unemployed.

“It is a way to resolve the problem of the working poor,” he said.

Another panelist, Chieko Akaishi, who is involved in support activities for single parents at the Single Mother’s Forum, presented some cases involving single mothers, including one who had to work day and night at a sushi restaurant following a divorce.

“Her little child called her on her mobile phone while she was working in the evening, and said, ‘Where are you now, mother?’ ” Akaishi said. “She eventually developed health problems and could only take part-time work due to her poor health.”

According to the bar association’s study, 84.5 percent of single mothers work and nearly half are involved in temp work or have short-term employment with a contract of less than a year.

Their average annual income is ¥2.13 million, a mere 37.8 percent of the national household average.

While the overall poverty rate among Japanese children is 14.3 percent, the rate for children with a single parent stands at 57.9 percent.

Akaishi said even if single mothers are employed on a regular basis, they have to work long hours and in many cases only have time to watch their children sleep.

“I hope to see a society in which not only single parents but other workers can get sufficient wages and enough time to be with their children,” Akaishi said.

Akira Hamamura, a law professor at Hosei University in Tokyo, said it is time “to redefine the meaning of why people work” amid the expansion of poverty.

“I believe people work not only to make a living but to achieve self-fulfillment so they can confirm their own raison d’etre,” Hamamura said, stressing that the issues of poverty and labor should be considered a human rights problem.

Based on these discussions, the bar association adopted a resolution urging the central and local governments as well as business managers to make regular employment a principle and temporary employment an exception while introducing a policy of equal pay for equal work.