The Abe administration has targeted some labor regulations that it views as obstacles to economic growth. The revision to the law on temporary dispatch workers, which was aborted in the last Diet session when Prime Minister Shinzo Abe dissolved the Lower House, will likely be tabled again if he survives the Dec. 14 general election, even though his Liberal Democratic Party’s campaign promise does not directly mention the bill. Also under discussion by a government panel is a proposal to exempt some corporate employees from work-hour regulations and compensate them on the basis of job performance rather than the hours they work. Voters should scrutinize where each party stands on these labor issues from the viewpoint of improving the overall well-being of workers.

The 1986 law on the dispatch of temporary workers bans the use of such workers for the same job for more than three years with the exception of 26 types of occupations that require special skills, such as interpretation and secretarial work. The bill proposed by the Abe administration to amend the law was aimed at abolishing the three-year limit by allowing companies to use temporary staff in the same job indefinitely as long as they replace individual workers every three years. Although the bill requires management to listen to the opinions of their labor unions when they want to use temporary staff for longer than three years, the unions are not empowered to override management decisions.

The business community, which has relied increasingly on an irregular workforce while cutting back on the employment of full-time workers, has been pushing for easing regulations on the use of temporary workers. But opposition parties sharply criticized the bill, charging that the amendment would prompt businesses to permanently replace full-time employees with temporary workers. The bill was eventually scrapped after deliberations on it in the Diet stalled over erroneous explanations by labor minister Yasuhisa Shiozaki.

Meanwhile, the so-called white collar exemption, which Abe reportedly insisted on including in his growth strategy, is being discussed at the labor ministry’s Labor Policy Council. The system will exempt some workers — defined in the government plan as those with highly specialized skills who earn more than ¥10 million a year — from work-hour regulations that oblige employers to pay overtime. The workers who choose to do so will be compensated according to their job performance regardless of the hours they work.

Proponents say the system of paying employees for the hours they work is irrelevant for office workers, whose productivity cannot be gauged by the time they spend at the company, and that the proposed system will improve their efficiency. Labor circles argue that it would exacerbate the already serious problem of many corporate employees working overtime without compensation.

In its campaign promise, the Democratic Party of Japan opposes revising the law on the dispatch of temporary workers as well as the white collar exemption scheme, and calls for the enactment of a law that guarantees the same pay for the same job irrespective of the status of workers. Ishin no To (Japan Innovation Party) also calls for the enactment of such a law as part of its effort to harmonize its campaign platform with the DPJ to challenge the LDP’s domination in the Diet.

The introduction of dispatch workers was once touted as enabling people to work in diverse ways. But such workers are typically paid less than full-time employees and lack job security. While the proposed revision could expand the number of such workers, it falls short on measures to improve their labor conditions. The bottom line should be to establish a “same work, same pay” principle. In addition, both the government and businesses should also make serious efforts to shorten the working hours of corporate employees.

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