More than half of all women working are employed on a non-regular basis, according to the labor ministry’s new report released this month. Of the total 22.37 million women in the Japanese workforce, 11.88 million, or 54.7 percent, were non-regular employees. This is a startling contrast to the corresponding rate for men, which in 2010 stood at 18.9 percent.

The rise in non-regular employees, including part-time workers, ‘arbeit‘ temporary workers, contract employees and dispatched workers, has come about through a series of changes in labor laws intended to allow Japanese companies to remain flexible and responsive to the economy. Hiring workers at lower pay with fewer benefits may have helped companies in the short run, but that short-term priority of profits over people hurts workers, and the economy.

The standard picture of temporary workers is young women who enjoy their freedom to change their workplace, take long vacations and live how they like. This overly romantic vision of the female temp life needs to be changed. Surely, many temp workers do use their so-called freedom to do what they like, and may wish to avoid the unpaid overtime and other demands of a full-time job. However, the majority would prefer more meaningful work, better security and more equitable benefits.

Female temp workers contribute greatly to the medical and welfare sector, with 4.78 million female temp workers, followed by the wholesale and retail sector, with 4.58 million, and manufacturing, with 2.75 million. Despite these numbers, temp workers receive few of the benefits of regular employees, though conditions are often just as difficult and at much lower pay.

The most important problems, though, are long-term. Regular employees build up experience through years of working. Without such experience, temp workers cannot develop the more complex, coherent career skills necessary for more challenging and higher-status positions. Many female workers, who graduate from universities at the same rate as men, have difficulty finding work past the age of 35, and end up wasting their talent, energy and potential.

Maintaining flexibility in hiring might seem beneficial over the short term. However, the failure to develop the talent of so many workers undermines Japan’s global competitiveness over the long term. Japan’s increasing reliance on temp workers has already contributed to Japan’s slipping from sixth to ninth place on last year’s Global Competitiveness Report from the World Economic Forum. The current policy of relying too heavily on female temp workers cannot be counted as a success.

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