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Japanese temp worker fights for labor rights as companies avoid hiring full-time staff

Kyodo

One Wednesday in early December, Teruko Watanabe left home for her office job of almost 17 years at a consulting firm in Tokyo’s Bunkyo Ward. But it was the last time she made the commute, because when she got to the office she was informed her contract had been terminated.

The news, which came from her staffing agency, hit Watanabe hard, as she had dedicated a significant part of her life to the company. That evening, the 58-year-old Watanabe gave her badge to a colleague and left the office for the last time.

For temp workers like Watanabe, there are no bonuses, no reimbursements for transportation fees and no severance pay. And because of amendments to labor laws, they face the constant threat of losing their jobs because employers want to avoid being tied down by a rule that allows temp workers to remain.

Watanabe started on an hourly wage of ¥1,750 (about $16). She renewed her contract every three months, more than 60 times. But over more than 16 years, she received a minuscule pay raise of only ¥80.

“Temps are treated just like objects,” Watanabe said. “Working is not only for earning an income. It also gives connections to society and allows a person to build a career, but temp employees can’t do this.”

Watanabe was an office equipment administrator, but she was also called on to answer phones and attend to overseas clients. She was paid at a level less than half of a regular employee 10 years her junior. There is no bereavement, maternity, paternity or sick leave for temp workers, either.

“There was discrimination — a feeling that they neither acknowledge my character nor my family’s,” she said.

Watanabe was born into a working-class family in Tokyo’s Shinjuku Ward. Her father was a conductor on a private railway and her mother had a job making clothing pattern samples. During her college years, Watanabe was a member of a research society on women’s history and even took part in the protest movement against Narita Airport.

Later, as a single mother of two children, Watanabe worked part-time jobs at a supermarket and for a life insurance company before taking up the temp work. Now her children are grown and she lives alone.

According to a Tokyo-based union for temporary workers, because of the amendment to contract law, more and more employees like Watanabe are seeing their contracts terminated.

Why? Under the revised law, workers on fixed-term contracts are entitled to apply for open-ended employment, granting them permanent status, if they work continuously for the same employer and repeatedly renew their contract for a period of five years or more.

But the law was not designed to allow it to be implemented retroactively, meaning those who had already worked more than five years were not credited for their past work. With the law enacted on April 1, 2013, the job security it intended to provide for those eligible will not become a reality until this April 1. So after the law came into force, to avoid having to permanently hire their temp staff, some employers moved people onto short-term contracts.

According to an article published in The Japan Times by Hifumi Okunuki, an associate professor at Sagami Women’s University who specializes in labor issues, “Some employers put new hires on one-year contracts with a three-renewal limit, or a five-year maximum with no renewal possible afterward.”

With March 31 being the first day that companies are required to hand out permanent contracts, it appears some employers are terminating temp employees.

In the past, temporary employment at the same workplace was limited to three years, except for those engaged in 26 specific jobs designated as requiring specialized skills or knowledge. A revision to the law, which took effect on Sept. 30, 2015, forces temp agencies to provide permanent employment by asking corporate clients to hire temp workers directly when they reach their term limits. It also abolishes the exemption for the specialized roles, placing an industry-wide three-year cap on all temporary workers doing the same jobs at the same company. Critics say, however, that the revised law is encouraging unscrupulous employers to fire their temp staff.

Watanabe, who has been giving talks at gatherings held by the Japan Federation of Bar Associations since 2011 and writing for professional journals, appeared in person to voice her opinion during deliberations on the revised law in the Upper House Committee on Health, Welfare and Labor.

“We aim to abolish the law that allows temporary employees to lose their jobs every three years,” she said at the 2015 meeting. “Temporary workers are indirect labor, and neither dispatch agencies nor their corporate clients take any responsibility. Even when we insist on the three primary rights of labor — the right to organize, the right to collective bargaining and the right to engage in labor disputes — they simply do not renew contracts.”

Watanabe said that even as she gave her statement, there were lawmakers in the chamber who dozed off or engaged in idle chat. “If you’re a temp, you get fired (if you do that). I was disgusted,” she recalled.

After the legislation cleared the Lower House, deliberations in the Upper House were delayed due to protests from opposition parties, which argued that the law would only benefit staffing agencies and companies.

Ichiro Natsume, 56, a lawyer who also attended the hearing as a witness, said, “According to a survey, more than 80 percent of temporary workers hope to become regular employees, but only 1.7 percent become regular employees. What’s more, nonpermanent workers fight in court for their wages and against promotion discrimination, but for the most part, they lose.”

Watanabe has obtained numerous qualifications, including in international trade administration and financial planning. She believed they might come in handy in her quest to become a regular employee.

Watanabe said that as part of her cause she now plans to demand that companies that refuse to renew contracts, dismissing their workers as irrelevant, review their decisions.

“The parties concerned have no alternative but to fight this,” she said.