Japan is looking to the Netherlands, which has successfully implemented a number of work sharing programs, for ways to deal with its record levels of unemployment.

Toshihisa Nagasaka, author of “Dutch Model” and a professor of international development at Takushoku University in Tokyo, said the Netherlands’ equal treatment of part- and full-time workers is one of the key elements behind its success in reducing unemployment.

“That measure has led to the spread of work sharing in the Netherlands,” said Nagasaka, who served as the head of JETRO’s Amsterdam office between 1993 and 1997.

“It has also freed people from pressures to work full time, enabling them to gain initiatives to choose their desired lifestyle. In other words, it has created a society that makes it easier for people to materialize their wishes in life.”

Emiko Takenaka, a professor emeritus at Osaka City University, said that to promote equal treatment it is necessary to change family-centered social security and wage systems to better suit individuals.

Takenaka, who also serves as executive director of the Osaka Gender Equality Foundation, said minimum wage levels need to be raised to enable people to live without having to depend on a spouse. Individuals should also be given more financial support in the areas of child-rearing and education, she added.

“Japanese businesses have a wage system that includes various benefits that should basically be covered by the government’s social security programs, such as family allowances,” she said, pointing out that such a wage system increases companies’ costs and can deter them from hiring extra staff.

“People may ask how to come up with the financial resources needed to provide such extended social security, but giving part-time workers the same treatment as their full-time colleagues would solve the problem,” she said, “since part-time workers (given the same working conditions) would pay taxes just like full-time workers.”

To deal with the unemployment situation in Japan, representatives of the government, employers and labor unions agreed in March on basic work sharing principles to protect employment and create new jobs.

In a bid to protect jobs, the government has also decided to subsidize companies that introduce work sharing programs.

The agreement, reached between Health, Labor and Welfare Minister Chikara Sakaguchi, Kiyoshi Sasamori, president of the Japanese Trade Union Confederation (Rengo), and Hiroshi Okuda, chairman of the Japan Federation of Employers’ Associations (Nikkeiren), points out that work sharing conducted under more flexible employment conditions would lead to a better balance between work, family and leisure.

It remains unclear, however, just how they will promote such flexible employment models, according to Takenaka.

“What’s happening in the workplace now is that management is trying to cut personnel costs by replacing the full-time workforce with part-time workers who are employed under terrible conditions,” Takenaka said. “The three parties need to present a vision of what kind of society we seek.”

Nagasaka believes work sharing should not merely be limited to solving the current unemployment problem. Rather, it should be used to change the entire employment system in a way that is aligned with the direction in which society is headed.

“The way Dutch people live — balancing work and their private lives — can be a model for future industrialized societies, which will see aging populations,” Nagasaka said. “In a graying society, we should have a system that makes it easier for various people, including the elderly and the disabled, to enter the labor market.”

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