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Sunday, Feb. 4, 2007

MEDIA MIX

Super temp worker who saves day is a nonconformist heroine


Prior to the start of the current Diet session, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said that the ruling coalition would not submit previously announced bills to revise the Labor Standards Law. The move was seen as being cautionary, since there will be an Upper House election in July and the bills would have contained the so-called white-collar exemption, which says companies no longer have to pay overtime to a certain class of office worker. It is thought the exemption would anger salarymen voters.

This assumption presupposes the obvious, that salarymen resent working overtime for free, and opponents of the exemption refer to it with a number of sardonic nicknames: the "pin-hane (rake-off)" or "fubarai (non-payment)" bills, the "work-more measure" and the "death-from-overwork-promotion" rule. The ruling coalition ignored these snipes by concentrating on what it saw as the exemption's social benefits: company employees can spend more time at home with their families rather than at the office.

Though the business world supports the white-collar exemption, it just as strongly opposes the other revisions being considered for the bill, including stricter penalties for labor-regulation violations, an increase in the minimum wage and a ban on age limits in hiring.

These revisions would mainly benefit workers who aren't full time and whose increasing numbers in the corporate workplace have stifled salaries across the board, according to a report released last week by the labor ministry. In a debate on NHK last Sunday morning, a Social Democratic Party politician asked the Liberal Democratic Party's Secretary General Hidenao Nakagawa about this trend. Nakagawa again tried to emphasize the social benefits. "Many people nowadays prefer to work in their own way," he said, specifically referring to contract employees. The temp boom is merely a reflection of society's desire for greater freedom of choice.

This thinking feeds into the idea that temp workers are happy-go-lucky free spirits who work only when they want to and enjoy their lives more than full-timers do. It's a myth that's convenient for corporations, who don't have to pay benefits or social insurance for temps and who got the government to liberalize the labor laws in 1999 to allow virtually any type of job to be contracted out.

The myth is addressed in Nihon TV's drama series "Haken no Hinkaku" (Wednesdays, 10 p.m.). Haken, which means "dispatch," is the word generally used to describe temporary contract workers, and hinkaku means "dignity." The protagonist, Haruko Ohmae (Ryoko Shinohara), is described as a "super haken," a temp whose office skills are so sharply developed that client companies ask for her by name.

Haruko is a super haken in more ways than one. While she can whip up a spreadsheet faster than you can say "Excel" and knows how to brew a mean cup of ocha, she also knows her rights. She's out of the office exactly at six o'clock. "Overtime is not in my dictionary," she says coldly. Full-timers are expected to hang around until their superiors leave, even if they have nothing to do.

The full-timers resent it when Haruko marches home after eight hours because it indicates she is not beholden to the company. It's implied she has better things to do. At night she is a flamenco dancer at a Spanish theme bar, and between three-month work assignments she travels to Spain to polish her art and language skills.

But beneath Haruko's extreme no-nonsense exterior is a broken heart. She was laid off from a full-time position when the company she worked for was downsized, and it's implied that her talents compensate for her loss of identity as a member of a corporate family. Every week, she reveals in superhero fashion another impossible skill -- operating heavy machinery, speaking Russian, preparing fancy seafood -- that she has picked up during her years as a temp.

This contrasts humorously with the relative lack of skills displayed by the full-timers at the food-service company where Haruko is currently contracted to work. They look down on the haken workers as an inferior species, but in every episode Haruko saves the day. At one point, the middle-aged department manager who hired her reprimands his young staff for the way they treat the temps. "In order to reduce costs we need haken with skills," he says. The contract worker is something the full-time worker must accept, not only as an economic necessity, but as an equal partner.

This is where the "dignity" comes in, and while the show emphasizes pride in accomplishment over financial reward it also makes the case that you can't have the former without the latter. Haruko commands a larger wage than other haken because she brings a professional attitude to her work. She does her job and expects to be compensated fairly for it. She wants no part of the corporate office culture and its politics of human networking. According to the laws of TV dramas, her heart will likely melt by episode 12, but for the time being she is an island of stoical purpose in a sea of unproductive workers. When the manager offers Haruko a full-time position, she curtly refuses. The company employees are so shocked, they fall over.

Haruko is a caricature of the haken ideal. The reality for temp workers is more complicated than the situation portrayed in "Haken no Hinkaku," but there's something refreshing, even radical, about Haruko's refusal to adhere to the mores of the corporate workplace, where working overtime is seen as a sign of conformity even when it's work that could have been done during normal hours. As the prime minister implied when he decided to shelve the white-collar exemption for the time being, even the most loyal salaryman expects to get paid for hanging around.



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