• Kyodo, Jiji


Many nonregular, or contract, workers at large companies in Japan have not received compensation from their employers, despite being forced to take leave amid the novel coronavirus pandemic, prompting Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga on Thursday to vow to end such discriminatory treatment.

The labor ministry announced Friday that it will expand the scope of its coronavirus relief benefit program to cover nonregular workers at large companies.

A survey conducted last summer showed that the proportion of such workers in Japan who did not receive compensation despite being told by their employers to take time off due to the pandemic was more than double the figure for regular staff.

The country's labor law requires an employer to pay employees 60% or more of their salaries regardless of their working status in the event of leave ordered by the company.

Despite the state offering subsidies for virus-hit businesses to maintain employment, many companies did not apply for them, partly due to the complicated application process, and refused to compensate employees, claiming they were not responsible for leave necessitated by the pandemic.

To address the problem, the central government in June set up a program allowing workers at small or medium-sized businesses to directly apply for state financial assistance to cover lost earnings.

But nonregular workers at large companies are not eligible for the program as it is assumed their employers will apply for the subsidies to maintain employment.

With the expansion, shift workers, contract workers and day laborers at large companies will be eligible to receive 80% of the wages they earned before taking leave, capped at ¥11,000 per day.

Such workers need to apply for the benefits themselves.

The ministry plans to start accepting applications in mid-February or later.

"Whether you are a regular worker or not, there should be no difference when it comes to making ends meet," said a woman in her 30s who works part time for a major cafe chain. A mother of two, she works four or five days a week.

Last year, her workplace was closed for nearly two months during the first coronavirus state of emergency that was in place from April to May.

While the cafe manager, the only regular employee at her workplace, received benefits from the company to make up for leave due to the closure, nonregular workers hardly got any compensation.

Asked why she was not entitled to compensation like her manager, the company said those who work permanently devote more of themselves to earn their living compared with part timers.

"I cannot accept such discrimination as I have been making my own contribution to the company," said the woman, who wished to remain anonymous due to the sensitivity of the situation.

According to the survey conducted in August by the Japan Institute for Labour Policy and Training, 33.4% of contract workers received no compensation for leave due to the pandemic, while the figure stood at 14.8% among regular employees.

The study also showed 68.3% of nonregular workers had been asked to take leave by their employers, higher than 60.8% among regular employees.

Kazutaka Umeda, a lawyer specializing in labor issues, said it was "wrong" for companies to refuse benefit payments to nonregular workers. "The pandemic has taken a toll on nonpermanent workers because of their relatively weak position," he added.

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