Staff writer

In 1994, Kinuko Ishida applied for Labor Ministry arbitration with her employer, alleging sexual discrimination over pay and promotion in violation of the Equal Employment Opportunity Law. But the company exercised its right under the law to refuse such mediation.

Three years later, in 1997, the Sumitomo Chemical Co. employee complained to the ministry again about her “discriminatory redeployment” from sales work to a clerical job. Again the company rejected arbitration.

Today, Ishida, 54, plans to visit the ministry’s Women’s and Young Workers’ Office in Osaka for the third time, now confident that arbitration will finally start under the revised Equal Employment Opportunity Law, which takes effect today. “I asked my bosses several times to move me back to sales work, which I finally got in 1995, after 30 years of service in clerical positions,” said Ishida, who has worked at the chemical products maker since 1963. “Even though my sales results were satisfactory, I was moved back to clerical work in 1997. With no change for two years, I came to realize that the firm wants women to stay indoors,” she said. “I decided to take action again to be re-placed under the revised law,” she said.

The original law, which took effect in 1986, required both employer and employee to agree to arbitration. But revisions will now allow mediation at either party’s request. The ministry’s Women’s and Young Workers’ Offices, set up in each prefecture, will decide if arbitration is necessary to resolve problems.

A number of working women had complained that the original law only required employers to make efforts to prevent discriminatory gender-based employment practices, and carried no penalty for violators.

In an effort to respond to critics, the revised law bans gender-specific job descriptions in ads, as well as sexual discrimination in employment, deployment, promotion and job training at the workplace. Employers are also obliged to prevent sexual harassment and to take steps regarding working conditions for pregnant women. They are also encouraged to get advice from the ministry regarding actions they can take to improve sexual equality in the workplace.

On the flip side, regulations protecting working women under the Labor Standard Law will also be eased today, so there will be virtually no restrictions on the type of work women can do.

Regulations limiting overtime and holiday work for women will be eliminated, and female workers, with the exception of those who are raising preschoolers and caring for elderly people, will be able to work between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m.

Since these revisions cleared the Diet as a package in 1997, companies have been preparing for the changes. The measures some companies plan to take include educating managers on ways to prevent sexual harassment, setting up a special section to receive claims from female workers and introducing a late-night shift at factories for female employees. “Companies are worried about the extent to which they must change their rules and systems,” said Tomoyuki Abe, section chief in charge of labor issues at the Tokyo Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

He noted that personnel management officials from 260 firms participated in two seminars organized by the chamber in February regarding the revisions. “Some participants asked questions such as what measures could be taken to draw upon the full potential of women and how to deal with uniforms only women wear,” he said.

However, it seems unlikely the revised law will lead to the elimination of all discriminatory employment practices. Hiroko Hayashi, a labor law professor at Fukuoka University, said that although the revised law is one step forward in improving the corporate environment for women, the inclusion of penalties for violators alone is not strong enough. “Under the revised law, the Labor Ministry can disclose the names of companies that violate the law and do not comply with its recommendations to shape up,” Hayashi said. “But because such disclosure is rare under other laws, I wonder whether it will be really effective in getting companies to abide by the law.”

Sumitomo Chemical’s Ishida said that even if mediation is carried out, a proposal that would be delivered by a three-member arbitration committee after hearing from both sides might not satisfy her. “I worry about the judgment the arbitration committee will make,” she said. “But it’s still meaningful for me to challenge the company under the new (legal) system.”

Some experts note that one major flaw in the revised law is that it does not cover indirect sexual discrimination under the so-called track hiring system, where women are hired on a clerical track while men are employed on a managerial course.

After her first mediation effort failed, Ishida, who is on a clerical track, filed a civil lawsuit against the company before the Osaka District Court in 1995, claiming male colleagues with the same educational and corporate background have been promoted faster and earn almost twice as much as her annual 4 million yen income.

Although many women now spend longer stints with their companies, Abe of TCCI said women need to change their attitudes toward their jobs, noting some choose companies based on corporate image or the job’s location.

Another factor that may inhibit the effectiveness of the revised law is that the nation is currently steeped in a recession. “What we workers care most about now is whether we can protect our own jobs, and we don’t have the leisure of paying attention to the revised law,” said Ikuko Sakai, a Kanematsu Corp. employee who has been waging a legal battle similar to Ishida’s since 1995.

“For me, revisions to the law that do not affect the track (hiring) system cannot change my situation,” she said. “It’s sad.”

Nevertheless, now — when the lifetime employment and seniority systems that were virtual trademarks of Japanese firms are losing out to a system that places value on individual abilities — may in fact be a good time for progress in gender equality.

For instance, Toyota Motor Co. is set to abolish its separate-track hiring system from today. “Regardless of the law, women with ability will have a better chance to pursue their careers. It’s not easy for talented women to show their abilities under discriminatory employment practices,” Hayashi at Fukuoka University said. “I think the sooner the recession ends, the more employment opportunities will be available to women.”

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