National / Media | MEDIA MIX

Japan's treatment of freelancers comes under the microscope

by Philip Brasor

Contributing Writer

Veteran British filmmaker Ken Loach’s latest work, “Sorry We Missed You,” which opened in Japan recently, is about the gig economy, the new employment environment surrounding companies like the ride-sharing service Uber that don’t so much hire people as give them access to users.

Loach’s film focuses on an English couple and their two children. The father becomes a franchisee for a delivery company that, despite its insistence he is an independent agent, penalizes him for late deliveries and absences. The mother is a freelance caregiver, who works ungodly hours more out of conscience than out of any monetary gain.

“Sorry We Missed You” is a scathing indictment of late stage capitalism, especially as it impacts a country such as the United Kingdom, where once sturdy social structures are collapsing. In Loach’s estimation, the gig economy provides the perfect theme for what is essentially a libertarian horror movie.

Japan has so far been reluctant to adopt the gig economy and its fellow travelers. The residential rental service, Airbnb, thrives to a certain extent but, compared to its situation in other countries, it’s hindered here by regulations that limit availability. What’s more, Uber is barely present in Japan. These two examples of the new economic order are less representative in Japan not because the authorities are trying to protect workers and consumers, but because they are trying to protect competing established industries.

However, Japan has always had its own version of the gig economy called hitori oyakata, which translates loosely as “one’s own boss.” Most hitori oyakata are tradesmen engaged in construction who hire themselves out to contractors that pay them for work undertaken. The tradesmen have to file their own taxes, and arrange their own health insurance and pensions. According to an article in the Tokyo Shimbun on Dec. 2, these workers are not technically freelancers, since most tend to work for one contractor. In Japan, “freelance” traditionally describes editors and translators hired on a needs basis.

As in Loach’s new film, even delivery work in Japan can be freelance now, as seen by the rising popularity of Uber Eats, Uber’s spinoff service that provides restaurants and other prepared meal businesses with delivery staff if they don’t have their own. Uber Eats delivery personnel are their own bosses in that they own their vehicles (bicycles and scooters, mainly) and only work when they want to. But they still are paid by Uber Eats, which gives them access to their registered users, restaurants and customers alike, and unilaterally sets their payment based on number of deliveries and distance. In Japan, this style of work is called koyō ruiji (employment-like), which indicates a status halfway between hitori oyakata and freelance. As the Tokyo Shimbun points out, freelancers and other self-employed people are not protected by labor laws. If they don’t think they’re being paid enough by a “client,” their only recourse is to not take work from that client anymore. For hitori oyakata who tend to work for only one business, the alternatives can be meager.

Uber Eats has attracted considerable media attention. The Tokyo Shimbun article was actually one installment in a series about the gig economy, which started on Nov. 18 with a piece that highlighted the benefits of working for Uber Eats, the main one being that delivery personnel have a degree of control over the hours they work. All they have to do is turn the app on and off.

However, the Nov. 25 installment described an attempt by some to form a labor union. They obviously have their work cut out for them since only 17 of the Uber Eats roughly 15,000 delivery personnel have joined so far, and a good portion of Uber Eats delivery personnel have other jobs. They only deliver food to make extra money. The union members’ main complaint is the meager compensation that is paid out when someone is injured on the job or has to take time off due to illness. They think of themselves as full-timers. In addition, they want more transparency about pay. As it stands, Uber Eats can and does change its payment system freely without consulting delivery personnel.

So far, Uber Eats has refused to talk to the union. According to a Dec. 6 article in the Tokyo Shimbun, delivery personnel can’t even get into the building. As the head of the union told the newspaper, delivery personnel have never encountered any humans in the course of their work with Uber Eats because everything is conducted via app. You don’t even have to interview for the job. Just log in. Information technology is increasingly allowing companies to keep workers at arms’ length. A company representative told the Tokyo Shimbun that “delivery partners” are not “employed workers” as defined by labor laws, so Uber Eats has no obligation to enter into collective bargaining.

This definition of a work relationship is already being challenged overseas in places such as California and France, but that’s because government has become involved there. Japan’s labor ministry did form a study committee to look at ways of protecting freelancers, but the term covers so much territory that it’s difficult to make specific recommendations. It’s easy to understand why companies desire freelance and contract help: There are fewer legal obligations and they are only employed on a needs basis. Freelancers aren’t even protected by minimum wage laws.

Of course, that could change, what with the labor shortage continuing as it is. In order to hold on to freelancers, companies may find they will need to treat them more fairly. That may be why the Japanese media is covering the issue so closely. A lot of media professionals are freelancers, whether they be journalists or production staff, so any changes in Uber Eats’ policy could point to future developments in the economy at large. It may not end up being a brave new world of self-reliant worker-agents, but let’s hope it isn’t the soul-destroying economic hell that Loach envisions.