The “shunto” spring wage talks got under way Wednesday with several major automotive unions submitting demands related to job security and wages.

The unions constitute the core of the influential Japan Council of Metalworkers’ Unions (IMF-JC), the umbrella body that sets wage negotiation policy for unions representing workers at automakers, electronics firms and other key industries.

This year’s talks are focusing on whether unions and management can bridge differences over company proposals to limit or scrap the current wage-hike system and hold down increases in overall salary levels.

The talks come as the stagnant economy has brought on severe deflationary pressure and dwindling profits in several sectors.

The long-standing wage system features annual hikes linked to basic monthly pay and age.

Most unions have voiced readiness to abandon requests for hikes based on monthly pay in favor of securing raises based on age to maintain current wage levels.

“As an emergency step, we may have to accept a review of pay levels,” said Kiyoshi Sasamori, chairman of the Japanese Trade Union Confederation (Rengo).

In preceding years, the average age-linked pay increase has been equivalent to between 1.5 percent and 2 percent. But managers at several companies have already expressed a desire to change the current wage structure completely.

This means the shunto talks will see each side taking tougher bargaining stances.

Unions representing workers at major manufacturers of household electrical appliances, ships and heavy machinery plan to submit wage-related demands Thursday.

Several large companies are scheduled to respond to these demands March 12.

The Confederation of Japan Automobile Workers’ Unions, the umbrella body of autoworkers unions, including those of Toyota Motor Corp., Nissan Motor Co. and Honda Motor Co., earlier sought to unify the scope of average basic pay hikes to monthly salaries that will be demanded by its member unions.

It abandoned this plan, however, because most of these companies rejected the unions’ demands last year for a uniform 1,000 yen hike in average basic monthly pay. This year, only the Nissan union will demand an average basic monthly wage hike of 1,000 yen.

On Wednesday, Hitachi Ltd. said it plans to approach its union about slashing regular annual wage hikes based on age, following similar moves by Fujitsu Ltd. and NEC Corp.

Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. also wants to scrap or limit wage increases linked to seniority for middle-aged workers and for employees in even higher age brackets.

Management and labor at Sumitomo Electric Industries Ltd. have already agreed to impose a one-year freeze on wage hikes under the age-based system.

Last year, the IMF-JC abandoned a plan to unify the scope of average monthly basic pay hikes at companies under its umbrella, as did Japan’s largest labor organization, the Japanese Trade Union Confederation (Rengo). Subsequently, raises at major companies in 2002 averaged 1.66 percent of monthly wages on a weighted average basis, according to a government survey.

The margin sank below the 2 percent line for the first time ever.

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