The Labor Policy Council is pushing to ease the rules on hiring — and firing — temporary workers.
This coincides with the Liberal Democratic Party’s desire to make Japan more “business friendly” — a major shift from the pro-labor Democratic Party of Japan’s policies when it was in power.
The Worker Dispatching Act took effect in 1986, ending a postwar ban on supplying temporary workers. Before and during the war, temp brokers abounded, charging high fees.
Initially, only 13 professional job categories requiring specialized skills were open to temporary workers. The scope was gradually expanded to cover almost all industries in 1999, excluding manufacturing, which began accommodating them in 2004.
The DPJ wrested power from the LDP in 2009 and came up with a plan to revise the act to better protect temp workers after seeing how badly they were treated during the global financial crisis.
The move came after a six-day “homeless village” was set up in Hibiya Park in Tokyo in late 2008 by labor unions and civic groups to provide food and lodging over the yearend holidays to the growing horde of temp workers who were losing jobs or homes because their contracts suddenly weren’t being renewed.
Less than two years after the 2012 activation of the law revised by the DPJ, the Labor Policy Council is proposing changes that will once more affect temp workers, which were estimated to total around 1.35 million in June 2012.
“Temporary workers are easy to hire and manage, and they can be laid off when the workload declines,” said an official handling labor affairs at a major manufacturing company. “We would greatly appreciate it if the law is revised for us to make it easier to use them.”
A report released last Wednesday proposes easing a three-year limit on the dispatch of temp workers to fill a particular post. This change would allow companies to fill posts indefinitely with temp workers as long as they are switched periodically, thus eliminating the need to use a regular worker after the three-year period.
Revising the Worker Dispatching Act is an essential element in the labor market deregulations sought under the economic growth strategy of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
The revision is supposed to offer greater flexibility to businesses by allowing them to hire and dismiss temp staff relatively easily, allowing them to cope with changes in the business environment.
Its goal strongly contrasts with that of the revision the DPJ made to the law in 2012 to better protecting temp workers.
“It’s not a policy shift on the level where bureaucrats operate,” said a ranking official of the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry. “It’s a top-down move,” the official said, suggesting the change of administration was behind the proposal.
It was also apparently difficult for members of the Labor Policy Council to defy the wishes of the government, as Abe put it in a policy speech last February that he wants Japan to become “the easiest country in the world in which to do business.”
One of the members representing labor at the council, which advises the labor minister, admitted it was difficult to challenge the proposed changes.
“This is what a change of government is all about,” the unidentified person said.
A 53-year-old temporary worker at a financial institution in Tokyo said she was anxious because her full-time pay maxes out at ¥230,000 per month. She said her husband, 58, has developed depression due to power harassment at his workplace and his accident and sickness benefits will expire in less than six months.
Tuition for the couple’s three daughters in high school and college, is weighing on their living expenses. To supplement their income, she plans to start another job on weekends.
She said many of her coworkers were forced to quit or cut hours when business slowed and information technology reduced the need for workers.
“Temps are the ones who are first subject to cost-cutting measures when business goes bad,” she said. “The number of households with a single breadwinner, such as those led by single mothers, is increasing. Does the government plan to increase the number of people with such an unstable status?” she said.
The report proposes obliging temp staff agencies to offer training for career advancement and job security. But the measures aren’t mandatory.
Given that many staffing agencies are small businesses, it is feared they will not be able to offer protection to temp staff when the economy slows and temp posts are reduced.
A staffing agency official who attended the council meeting as an observer said, “We will make efforts (to secure jobs), but there is a limit to what agencies can do, especially in provincial areas.”
Labor-side committee members called for the introduction of “equal treatment,” requiring firms to pay the same wages to temporary workers doing the same work as regular employees.
That would help raise the wages of temporary workers and give employers less incentive to replace them with temp staff.
But the proposal was not included in the report due to the opposition of management. If the revised law reflecting the content of the report is enacted, the proposed measures are likely to take effect in April 2015.
But many issues will likely remain unresolved on the job security and work environment fronts for temporary workers.