I ndications of deteriorating working conditions for Japanese workers are coming to light at workplaces across the nation as the result of a practice that has become a social issue: More and more manufacturing companies are bringing in contract workers (ukeoi) to have them work like temporary workers (haken) — as if dispatched from staffing agencies — but without haken benefits.

For laymen, the legal difference between these two types of workers is a bit hard to understand. But the practice not only is illegal and responsible for low wages — usually about half or less of regular-employee wages — but also leads to worker instability. Companies should quit the habit, and the labor standards inspection offices should crack down on violators.

In normal contract work, contractors provide their own equipment and have their workers produce products for which customer companies have placed orders. But these days some contractors just send their workforce to the factories or offices of customer manufacturing companies, which instruct and supervise the workers as if they were their own employees — using them to manufacture products or perform services. Since these workers are technically employed by contractors, customer companies should give them the same rights and privileges as workers dispatched from agencies. But they do not.

One reason for this is to reduce wages, but there are other reasons. If workers remain in the ukeoi status, customer companies need not take responsibility for their safety because such responsibility legally rests with the contractors. Customer companies also can use ukeoi workers for as many months or years as they want. All the contractors have to do is send ukeoi replacements to the workplaces as the customer companies need them.

The advantage of using ukeoi workers from the viewpoint of customer companies becomes clear when the regulations concerning haken workers are taken into account. Under the law, if haken workers are on the job for more than a year at manufacturing companies, the companies are obligated to “make efforts” to directly employ them. If they work for more than three years, the manufacturing companies must offer direct employment to them.

In addition, companies that use haken workers are responsible for abiding by regulations aimed at protecting workers. As long as workers remain in the ukeoi status, manufacturing firms do not have to directly employ them and are not bound by the worker-protection rules. As far as the law is concerned, contractors are the employers of ukeoi workers and responsible for their working conditions. This can have tragic consequences.

Since ukeoi workers may do virtually the same jobs as haken workers, some ukeoi workers assume that, like haken workers, they will have the opportunity to become regular employees in the future. But the agreement between contractors and customer companies stipulates that the workers are ukeoi. So, even if they work for more than three years for a manufacturing company, the company has no legal duty to directly employ them.

The decisive event that has led to this miserable situation was the revision of the law for dispatched workers, which went into effect in March 2004. It allowed manufacturers to use haken workers. As a result, many manufacturers have chosen to bring in ukeoi workers in name while treating them as if they were haken workers.

According to the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry, the number of contractors and customer companies that have been told by regional labor bureaus to change their practices related to ukeoi workers jumped from 248 in fiscal 2003 to 639 in fiscal 2004 and to 974 in fiscal 2005. Cases also have surfaced in which regional offices of the Land, Infrastructure and Transport Ministry used ukeoi workers like haken workers.

Many ukeoi workers who are used like haken workers are in their 20s and 30s. Their hourly wage is about 1,000 yen. They are a symbol of the poor labor environment in general, in which “nonregulars” now make up some 30 percent of the nation’s workforce. According to National Tax Administration Agency statistics, the number of salaried workers whose annual income is less than 3 million yen increased from 15.07 million in 2000 to 16.92 million in 2005. This problem won’t be solved unless efforts are made to increase the number of regular workers.

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