Delivering a key policy speech for 2016, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Friday pledged to promote measures to reduce wage disparities between regular and nonregular workers, marking a surprise shift toward advocating the so-called “equal pay for equal work” policy.

Nonregular workers include part-timers, contract workers and temp staff dispatched from personnel agencies.

In Japan, wages and other benefits for those workers are often significantly lower than those of regular workers, a source of growing frustration recently that is being felt by voters nationwide, particularly women and young people.

“We will undertake the task of securing equal treatment for nonregular workers,” Abe told lawmakers at a Lower House plenary session. “We will take steps to realize ‘equal pay for equal work’ ” when the government compiles programs to promote further utilization of Japan’s human resources.

When opposition parties submitted to the Diet a bill designed to correct unfair wage disparities between regular and nonregular workers, Abe’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party and Komeito partner agreed to enact it only after watering it down, drawing criticism from opposition lawmakers.

The policy shift is an apparent effort to strengthen voter support ahead of the Upper House election this summer.

Opposition parties, including the Democratic Party of Japan, are now trying to tap voter frustration over the growing wealth disparity in Japan in recent years. Non-regular workers accounted for 37.4 percent of the total workforce in 2014, nearly double the 19.1 percent figure from 1989.

In the speech, however, Abe did not explain how he will specifically promote the “equal pay for equal work” policy.

“We will think about concrete measures from now on,” a high-ranking government official said, adding Abe’s Cabinet has not yet decided whether it will propose any revision of laws to promote the policy.

Abe dedicated most of the speech to economic and labor issues, reflecting his “economy first” stance for the election.

Abe also said he wants to improve relations with Russia and resolve the long-stalled territorial dispute over islands known in Japan as the Northern Territories off Hokkaido.

“I’d like to build up relations with Russia to cope with various issues confronting the world,” Abe said.

Touching on Japan’s relationship with South Korea, Abe, addressing the contentious “comfort women” problem, boasted that he has “brought the long-standing issue to a close” and added that he has opened “a new era of cooperative ties” between Tokyo and Seoul.

Comfort women is the name used to refer to women forced to work at Japanese wartime military brothels in the 1930s and ’40s. Seoul and Tokyo reached a deal last month to end the diplomatic row over the issue when Tokyo agreed to the setting up of a ¥1 billion fund.

Abe, meanwhile, described “the peaceful rise of China” as a “big opportunity not only for Japan but also for the world.”

Japan will further develop a friendly and stable relationship with China, Abe said. As for his life-long ambition to revise Japan’s pacifist Constitution, Abe only mentioned it briefly at the very end of the 48-minute speech.

“Reform of election systems is the foundation of democracy and constitutional revision will decide the shape of the state. We, the Diet members, should openly and squarely have discussions (on those issues) and find a solution without running away from them,” Abe said.

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