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Workers dispatched from temporary employment agencies make up one of the fastest-growing sectors of Japan’s workforce.

These workers numbered around 570,000 in fiscal 1993, and by fiscal 1999, this figure had nearly doubled to about 1.07 million, according to government statistics, which also show that a 20 percent jump was recorded in the last year of this period alone.

Labor experts are, however, divided on the issue of whether Japan’s growing army of temporary workers is a positive development.

Some welcome the flexibility that temporary employment offers both employers and employees. But others suspect that many companies will ultimately exploit this situation and scale back their hiring of full-time staff.

The recent growth in this sector of the nation’s workforce follows the lifting of a restriction late last year regarding the kinds of jobs temporary workers are allowed to do.

A system was also endorsed in December that allows temporary workers to continue working for their employers on a full-time basis after their temporary contracts expire, provided both sides agree to the arrangement.

On the upside, these changes have raised hopes that more job opportunities will open up for middle-aged, elderly and physically disabled workers.

One labor analyst, however, is not so sure about this.

“It is doubtful whether the new system will lead to the employment of middle-aged and elderly people at a time when businesses are trying to cut their employees to cope with sluggish business conditions,” he said.

Pasona Inc., a major Japanese staffing agency, has about 3,000 registered workers.

“We are also giving priority to middle-aged and elderly people as well as to the physically disabled. The new system gives them the chance to be hired,” company spokeswoman Yuko Nakase said.

According to Nakase, Pasona will also use the new system to help university and junior college graduates who quit their first jobs after two or three years.

Manpower Japan Co., another major agency, had dispatched around 300 workers under the new system as of February, with 40 of these having since been taken on full time.

“Foreign-affiliated enterprises show a particularly high level of interest,” said Yoshikazu Hashiguchi, head of the company’s marketing headquarters.

Employers meanwhile tend to be more tolerant of temporary staff than was the case in the past.

Uni-charm Moelnlycke K.K., a company that sells adult diapers, is one firm that is already taking advantage of the new system.

“Our company’s name is not well known in terms of recruiting. Our business performance is strong, however, making it difficult for us to recruit enough staff. Introductions from temporary employment agencies are therefore efficient for us,” explained Yasushi Kikuta, chief of the company’s personnel section.

Some employment agencies are worried, however, that the new system will end up hurting them, as it may cause a large outflow of workers who have been trained by the agencies.

“Companies are making (temporary workers) work by sticking a carrot in front of their noses, promising direct employment,” remarked Shuichiro Sekine, deputy secretary general of a labor network created by organizations that deal with the issue of temporary employment.

“As companies need to cut their staff, I don’t think they will adopt the new system in good faith.”

A survey conducted by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government in fiscal 1998 appears to validate this view.

Around 37 percent of companies surveyed said they chose workers dispatched from employment agencies simply because they had no jobs on offer for regular employees. This figure was up by 14 percentage points from a similar survey conducted 10 years previously.

The survey also evidenced an increase in the number of companies that use temporary employment services as a means of cutting the size of their full-time workforces.

Despite this, Yoshihiro Toyoda, chief researcher at Recruit Work Research Institute, believes the new system can be mutually beneficial to both employers and workers.

“The dispatch period is like that of cohabitation,” he said.

“Since hiring a person as a regular employee is decided after employers and workers get to know each other well, the new system works well for recent graduates who don’t know much about the world.

“The key to the new system’s popularity will depend on the level of recognition it receives and the quantity and quality of the temporary workers it supplies,” he said.

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