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Thursday, Sept. 19, 2002

Temp work seen striking happy medium

Staff make career inroads at own pace; cash-strapped firms get jobs done


Staff writer

According to Shinya Sato, an executive director at Japan Staffing Services Association, the CIETT meeting held in Tokyo in April provided momentum to help spur the Japanese temp industry toward further deregulation.

CIETT, or Confederation Internationale des Entreprises de Travail Temporarire, is a Brussels-based international organization where matters related to temporary work are discussed. It is attended and run by temporary worker associations in 28 developed nations. It was the first time for the conference to be held in Asia.

Sato said the conference, attended by 500 people including Labor Minister Chikara Sakaguchi and Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Takeo Hiranuma, made it crystal-clear that deregulation is globally the most important trend in the temporary work industry.

According to Sato, temporary workers make up between 5 percent to 9 percent of the workforce in the United States and most European countries, while in Japan they account for less than 1 percent.

"Restrictions on temp work in Japan should be eased, both in the duration of employment and types of work authorized," Sato said, adding that such change will help solve the current unemployment problems while also matching the lifestyles of young workers, an increasing number of whom prefer the leisure hours associated with temp work.

Labor surveys show that the number of permanent employees has been dropping steadily since 1998. In fiscal 2001, for instance, the figure fell by 0.3 percent over the previous year. While the number of full-time employees continues to decrease, that of temporary workers has been rapidly growing, with the figure rising by a hefty 29.8 percent in 2000 over a year earlier to 1.39 million, according to the labor ministry.

Those temporary workers were dispatched to 290,000 workplaces, with sales amounting to 1,671 billion yen at temporary employment agencies, 14.5 percent higher than the previous year.

In Japan, labor-related laws allowed employment of temporary workers at only 26 categories of industry until 1999. Today, such statutory limitations have been lifted, except for five categories -- port transport, construction, security, health care and manufacturing. However, the duration of employment is still limited to three years for jobs in the 26 categories, and one year for the rest.

Many in the staffing business and business operators as well believe that abolition of these regulations will help reactivate the Japanese economy, motivating entrepreneurs to hire workers and providing work to those who need it.

According to the Japan Institute of Labor, employment adjustments in Japan have so far been carried out either by decreasing or increasing overtime hours -- increasing at the time of economic booms and decreasing in times of recession, and not by adjusting the number of workers.

Under the much-prolonged economic slump, many businesses are opting to adjust employment by replacing regular employees with temporary and part-time workers.

While working conditions differ between temps and regular employees, more temps are now given work that had been handled by regular, full-time workers.

While some consider such a move rather negatively, Reizo Mohri, a director of the Temporary Workers' Health Insurance Union, said, "Given the current economic circumstances, companies cannot keep all their workers on the payroll. Japanese companies have until now retained too much surplus personnel. Full-time employees are now threatened by the more skilled and harder-working temps, a natural phenomena in a competitive world," he said.

"The shift from the traditional seniority system to the Western system of evaluation based on performance has also been adapted to suit the special characteristics of the Japanese working environments. I believe the same holds true of temporary work, and it will adapt itself in a positive way to Japan."

Japan Staffing Services' Sato believes temp work is not necessarily a substitute for unavailable full-time work.

A recent EU survey found that 40 percent of all people who took on temp work for the first time in the EU were either unemployed, newly graduated or had not been working until that time due to various reasons, according to CIETT Secretary General Eva Casado Alarcon. This indicates temp work is creating new job opportunities, not depriving people of full-time jobs.

Some young Japanese are also beginning to view temporary work positively. While some see it as a way to gain experience in their preferred fields to prepare for future full-time careers, others, as Sato described, like to remain temps since they dislike being restrained by companies.

Companies are also trying to narrow the gap between the conditions of temps and regular employees.

Temps are given more authority to make decisions in their work, and more are recently being accepted on a TTP (temporary-to-permanent) basis, a scheme introduced with the deregulation in 2000 whereby workers have the option to become full time if both the company and its employees agree after a certain period.

It is a very advantageous scheme for companies that are willing to employ regular workers, as the cost to recruit new employees, estimated to be as much as 1 million yen per person, can be reduced.

The scheme has so far been a success. In 2001, the number of staffers who were dispatched as TTP to companies from the top five temp agencies alone was 2,500. In 2002, the figure is expected to grow to as many as 6,000.

Japan Staffing Services's Sato believes the scheme will also help middle-aged and elderly people, who have the greatest need for a full-time job.

"I am convinced that, especially with the expected lift of the ban on dispatching temporary workers to the manufacturing sector, many middle-aged and elderly workers with special skills will be taken on as TTP staff, eventually becoming full-time workers," he said.



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