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Longtime part-time employee Yasue Kitamura found her job becoming more worthwhile after being assigned responsibility for the Calvin Klein bedroom items corner at Takashimaya Co.’s Nihonbashi flagship department store five years ago.

But while she enjoys instructing junior part-time sales staff and giving advice on product selection, the 54-year-old is dissatisfied with the gaps in the working conditions between part-timers and full-timers.

“I’ve got to cope with increased workload and heavier responsibility, but (the situations) have not been reflected in my salary,” she said.

Kitamura works 6 1/2 hours a day. She has worked for the store in Tokyo since 1981.

Her hourly wage is 1,025 yen per hour, or around 150,000 yen a month. Although her wage cannot be directly compared with the monthly salary of a full-time employee due to differences in their working hours and positions, full-time employees make more than double this amount each month. For example, the average monthly salary of a 42.3-year-old full-time employee is around 411,000 yen, according to the Takashimaya Labor Union.

Other working conditions are also inferior to those of regular workers.

Annual bonuses for part-time staff are fixed at an amount equal to two months’ salary. They do not receive a retirement allowance and they have poor welfare programs.

To improve their conditions, an increasing number of part-time workers, mostly women like Kitamura, have joined unions in recent years. And as this year’s annual spring wage negotiations move into full swing, these part-timers are hoping their demands will be reflected in the talks.

“For those part-timers who want to make a bigger commitment to their jobs, joining a labor union is a way to get better benefits from companies,” said Akira Wakisaka, an economics professor at Gakushuin University.

As of the end of last June, the number of unionized part-time workers grew by 38,000 from a year earlier to 331,000, accounting for 3 percent of such employees, according to the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry.

The Japanese Trade Union Confederation (Rengo), a major union federation, has made unionizing and improving part-timers’ working conditions one of the major goals of its spring wage talks.

As more part-timers engage in core job, upgrading their conditions has become increasingly important.

Since the 1990s, many companies have replaced full-time workers with part-timers to reduce operating costs. The number of part-timers reached 9.69 million in 2003, up 50 percent from 1997, while the number of full-timers dropped 5 percent to 33.21 million, according to the labor ministry.

Unions are also trying to woo part-timers.

Unions that have suffered a decline in their ranks see the growing number of part-timers as a chance to boost membership and regain their influence.

As of the end of June, unionized workers made up 19.6 percent of the nation’s workforce, the lowest level in the postwar period.

The Takashimaya Labor Union is a successful example. It organized part-timers in 1995 by setting up a system that automatically makes those who have worked at the company for at least a year union members.

The union now has about 5,000 part-timers, accounting for 37 percent of the 13,500-member union. The rate was 26 percent in 1995.

Akio Hayashida, deputy chairman of the union, plans to go to bat for part-timers in this spring’s negotiations, which start March 20. He said the union will demand that management improve part-timers’ wages and other conditions, including establishment of a system to allow them to temporarily leave their jobs for child-rearing and elderly nursing care.

Part-timers have already seen some success through their union activities.

“We now get the same discount rates that full-timers have when we purchase goods at Takashimaya stores, and we can use contracted recreation facilities at lower costs,” Kitamura said. “I’ve also become more interested in corporate management” through union meetings.

But part-timers still haven’t received what they really want.

“Our wages haven’t been raised” very much, Kitamura said. “I want to become a full-time worker, but there is no system to make it possible” at Takashimaya.

Hayashida said it is difficult to achieve a result that will satisfy all part-timers. Some want challenging jobs and higher wages, while others want to keep their work hours short and limit their wage levels to get preferential tax and social insurance treatment.

Spouses of salaried workers do not have to pay income tax if they earn less than 1.03 million yen annually. Those who earn less than 1.3 million yen per year do not have to pay social insurance premiums.

Gakushuin University’s Wakisaka said labor unions and employers should introduce a system to treat part-timers more fairly.

“Such a system would motivate the part-timers to work hard, which would make companies more competitive,” he said. To increase productivity, “full-time workers can also share information useful for their business with part-timers.”

Some companies in the retail industry, which relies heavily on part-timers, have already started working to improve their situation to bring it more in line with full-time employees.

Last month, Aeon Co., a major retailer that operates the Jusco and Maxvalu supermarket chains nationwide, introduced a new promotion and salary system that applies to both groups. Roughly 80 percent of the firm’s workers are part-timers.

Under the system, part-timers can be promoted to managers in charge of operations of small and midsize stores. However, they are required to work the same hours as regular employees, said an official of the Aeon Labor Union, which has about 14,000 members. Such part-timers working full-time hours are paid a salary close to that of regular full-time staff, he said.

“We plan to unionize 3,000 to 5,000 part-timers at higher positions by August to increase our influence,” he added.

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