Working conditions have been declining at many firms in recent years as the economic slump drags on, and especially hard-hit have been those with “temporary” status, as they face falling wages and shortened contracts.

But as their overall ranks swell amid moves by firms to shed their full-time staff, efforts are also afoot to organize the part-time ranks in a bid to improve their lot.

Formed in mid-May, the Jinzai (Human Resources) Services General Union, Japan’s first-ever blanket union covering short-term employees, now has 18,000 members, including 12,000 registered at temp staff agencies, 4,000 “short-term” workers directly under contract with companies and 2,000 full-time employees at temp agencies, many of which have no union for full-time staff.

A union is essential for temporary workers, who are in a weak position, said Makoto Ninomiya, chairman of JSGU and a director at UI Zensen (Japanese Federation of Textile, Chemical, Food, Commercial, Service and General Workers’ Unions), which played a leading role in JSGU’s creation.

“Temps feel reluctant to complain directly to their bosses about their working conditions because they fear this could cost them their jobs,” Ninomiya said.

Temporary workers in general work under contracts reached between employment agencies and their corporate clients. In most cases, they work just as many hours as so-called full-time staff, known as permanent employees, but do not enjoy the benefits or pay.

“Employment agencies sometimes turn a blind eye to worker complaints” so they won’t alienate their corporate customers, Ninomiya said.

“Short-term” workers on contract with companies can also feel in limbo and in need of union support. Like temps, they, too, work as many hours as full-timers and often for many years.

One such worker, a woman in her early 30s who is a JSGU member, has worked 10 years on renewable six-month contracts at outlets of a confectioner chain run by a trading firm. Her status kept her from receiving paid holidays and off the firm’s pension, health and employment insurance programs.

In April, she sought help from UI Zensen, which negotiated with her employer without revealing her name. This reportedly eventually led the firm to improve its overall working conditions.

“I’ve been seriously worried about my future because my husband is ill and has not worked for three years,” the woman said. “Seeking help from the union seemed the only way for me to improve the situation without revealing my name to my employer.”

Besides trying to address complaints about poor working conditions, JSGU plans to set up a mutual financial aid system for members who become unemployed.

It also aims to hammer out a minimum hourly wage agreement with eight temporary employee agencies, including Pasona Inc. and Manpower Japan Co.

Full-time employees and temp staff registered at the agencies have set up JSGU branches at the firms.

But with more and more workers and businesses turning to temporary services, pay levels are declining, according to Showa Women’s University professor Takeo Kinoshita, an expert on female labor issues.

According to the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry, a company paid an average of 13,728 yen in fiscal 2002 to a temp agency for eight hours of work by an office receptionist or parking lot attendant, down 6.7 percent from fiscal 1997.

Of that amount, about 20 percent to 30 percent is kept by the employment agency as a commission. Workers receive the remainder.

“By forging the (minimum wage) agreement, temporary workers can secure a certain wage level,” said Tomomi Kai, a senior UI Zensen official. “Agencies can maintain fee levels by using the agreement as a defense” when corporate customers demand lower fees.

Shunichi Takahashi, president of temporary work firm With Co., one of the eight agencies, said he hopes the new union will help the industry become more sound, adding that the minimum wage agreement should work to maintain proper salary standards for temporary jobs.

As more companies replace long-term employees with short-term workers to reduce labor costs, JSGU hopes to increase its ranks to 50,000 by the end of this year by publicizing its activities, said Kai of UI Zensen, who is also on JSGU’s executive committee.

According to the labor ministry, short-term employees, including temps and part-timers, made up 34.6 percent of the nation’s workforce in 2003, up 7.1 points from 1999.

Although temps are expected to increase in number, experts said it is uncertain if the new union can significantly improve their working conditions.

Ichiro Takamura, an executive director of Japan Staffing Services Association, a major industry lobby, said it will be difficult for JSGU to draw many temporary workers.

“If the workers have complaints about temporary service agencies or working conditions at companies, they can quit and take temporary jobs at different companies or move to other temp agencies,” he said.

In fact, a temporary employee in her 30s who has been registered with an agency for 14 years said she opted not to join JSGU after reading a leaflet about its activities.

“The union requires members to pay a monthly membership fee, but I doubt the union could give us much in return,” she said, asking not to be named.

JSGU requires members to pay 1.5 percent of their monthly salary. Membership fees range from 500 yen to 3,500 yen.

To boost its membership, Kinoshita of Showa Women’s University said JSGU should offer more attractive programs, including training to help people brush up on job skills.

He said the union could also establish a temporary staff firm that charges lower commission margins.

Lawyer Mami Nakano, who serves as president of Temporary Work Network, a nonprofit organization working on behalf of temps, said the union could gain support from many temps if it succeeded in raising their wages via negotiations with employment agencies.

“If the union gains more than 50,000 members, I think it could effectively upgrade their social status in the labor market,” she said, adding that unionizing is “just one step forward” toward narrowing the gap in working conditions between those on short-term contracts and long-term workers.

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