Prime Minister Shinzo Abe caused a stir when he called in a Jan. 22 policy speech for equal pay for comparable jobs, apparently to bring the earnings of regular and nonregular workers into line.

Opposition lawmakers did not like what they heard. They dismissed his words as ambiguous, detecting in them no serious intention to eradicate disparity in pay across the two categories of worker. They also pointed to the absence of specific proposals from Abe’s administration in the form of Diet bills.

During a budget committee session at the Lower House on Friday, Akira Nagatsuma of the Democratic Party of Japan urged Abe to clarify what he means by “equal pay for equal work” and to pledge legislation to correct the wage gap between regular and nonregular workers.

Nonregular workers include part-timers, contract workers and temporary staff dispatched by personnel agencies.

“You should submit a bill. Otherwise it’s only a slogan, which is very bad,” Nagatsuma said.

But Abe dodged Nagatsuma’s questions, saying the government will make a decision only after an advisory panel on labor and population issues submits a final report to him this spring.

“I have said we will take steps to promote equal treatment. At any rate, we will make efforts to improve the treatment of nonregular workers,” he said.

In the Japanese labor market, the dominant wage system is one based on the seniority or age of workers and how long an individual has been with a company.

Pay is set largely irrespective of the role a worker plays in comparison with nonregular staff in the same workplace.

The often huge disparity is often blamed for the nation’s widening wealth gap.

According to data compiled by Nagatsuma, the monthly wage of the average regular worker rises from ¥202,400 for those aged 20 to 24 to ¥398,700 for one aged 50 to 54.

Meanwhile, the average wage of a nonregular worker remains almost flat throughout their career, fluctuating between ¥170,100 for those aged 20 to 24 and ¥220,200 for those aged 60 to 64, according to Nagatsuma, a former welfare and labor minister.

He said Japan should introduce labor regulations like those of the European Union, which ban pay discrimination between full-time and part-time workers.

Specifically, companies should be obliged to assess and disclose the value of different jobs and equalize the wages they pay, Nagatsuma maintained.

Nagatsuma gave the example of a supermarket operator that would be required to assess the work value of a part-time job at the cash desk and that of a regular worker at the firm’s headquarters. He said if the work value ratio between the two jobs is 9:7, the wage ratio should be the same.

Meanwhile opposition lawmakers have argued that Abe’s definition of “equal pay for equal work” is ambiguous.

In Abe’s definition, it means equal pay for jobs with identical conditions — in other words, factors such as the duties required and the experience expected of workers.

Nagatsuma argued that this could only mean equal pay for equal nonregular work, unless a work value assessment system for different job categories is introduced.

“I don’t think the wages of nonregular workers will be increased unless wages for jobs of different categories are equalized,” he said.

Abe also pledged to promote what he called “balanced treatments” of workers, based on job descriptions and on factors including the experience required and the level of responsibility workers hold — both of which may vary for people in similar roles.

This deepened suspicions among opposition lawmakers that Abe may not seriously want to eradicate disparities between regular and nonregular workers.

During the same Diet session, welfare and labor minister Yasuhisa Shiozaki said the government should first conduct studies about the various job conditions people are subjected to.

The labor minister now reportedly plans to conduct its first comprehensive survey on wages and working conditions. But the results are not expected to be released before May — too late for the action plan Abe has promised.

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