Although Japanese high school graduates might have a better chance of a landing job this year than in the recent past, many will choose to become “freeters” to avoid becoming cogs in the corporate system.

The use of the term freeter has gained in currency during the recession. It is a combination of the English word “free” and the German word “arbeiter,” meaning worker. The Japanese approximation of arbeiter — “arubaito” — means part-time, casual or temporary work.

The ratio of job offers to seekers expected to graduate from high school next spring was 1.15 as of the end of November, topping 1 for the first time in four years. But this increase does not seem to be benefiting new workers.

A high school career counselor cited the example of a former student. The teen finished high school in Kanagawa Prefecture in 2003 and took on a 230,000 yen per month full-time job at a restaurant chain. But he quit after being forced to work 17-hour days with two random days off each week.

“It is young and unskilled workers who are forced to work long hours under harsh conditions,” the career counselor said on condition of anonymity. “These tough working conditions, such as unexpectedly long overtime without pay, lead them to quit regular positions and become freeters.”

The career counselor said the work atmosphere at Japanese companies has made young people cynical about joining the workforce.

“After leaving their regular employment due to unreasonable conditions, young workers are pessimistic about taking permanent positions and believe assuming regular employment does not pay,” he said.

The counselor and his colleagues at the midranking prefectural high school conducted research into how students from the class of 2003 were doing one year after graduating. Teachers sent questionnaires to or telephoned all 185 graduates.

Of the 185 graduates, 34 found regular employment. But of the 34, 12 had already quit. Half of those who had quit had become freeters.

With young people being treated as disposable by companies, the career counselor wondered, “Can we blame our graduates that they lack a willingness to work?”

The young man who had slaved away at the restaurant took on construction work for a while before finding contract-based delivery work.

Seventeen graduates were still working in regular positions one year after finishing school. But four of them said they planned to quit and five others said they might, according to the survey.

One female graduate who found regular employment as a clerical worker at a temp agency said she was satisfied with her job. But in her second year with the company, she was assigned to be a temp worker. At the time of the survey, she was considering quitting.

Of 18 graduates who moved on to junior colleges, four had dropped out by the time of the survey. Three of the dropouts were working as freeters. Of 58 graduates who attended vocational schools, 11 dropped out. Most also became freeters.

“The employment situation might be improving little by little, but our study indicated that more than a few of our graduates have become freeters after finding regular employment right after graduation or proceeding to higher education,” a teacher said.

Jaded former full-time workers such as these, combined with those who became freeters immediately after graduation, have boosted the overall ranks of freeters, despite the upturn in the labor market, the teachers said.

Among 56 graduates who had not decided what they would do after graduation, 25 were freeters one year later, according to the survey.

But 19 graduates who had gone on to four-year colleges were still studying and planning to earn degrees.

It is now estimated there are more than 4 million people aged 14 to 34, excluding students and housewives, working as freeters.

“Older people tell the young to work with hope,” said Masaru Kaneko, economics professor at Keio University, referring to the results of the survey. “But such people usually do not understand how awful the current working conditions are.”

Kaneko, who has interviewed freeters and high school teachers, said the people who are working as freeters are not to blame for the phenomenon. They are simply the symptom of a much larger problem.

During the economic bubble, company recruiters lined up at high schools to contact teachers and students. These days, the career counselor said, they rarely visit.

“In the past, companies had a willingness to foster young workers, and I believe such firms are good ones,” he said.

Kaneko shared this view, saying, “Companies are now forcing a handful of regular employees to work to the last atom of their strength,” and are employing part-timers to handle menial tasks.

He said the freeter issue reflects an overall structural problem in society.

In its recent economic survey of Japan, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development pointed to the “dualism” between regular workers and nonregular ones.

“The increasing dualism is creating a group, concentrated among young people, with short-term employment experience and low human capital, given the important role of firm-based training in Japan,” it says.

The report says: “There are also important equity problems, given that the difference in productivity between regular and nonregular workers is much smaller than the wage gap. The equity concern is magnified by the lack of movement between the two segments of the workforce, trapping a significant portion of the labor force in a low-wage category from which it is difficult to escape.”

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