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Thursday, Sept. 19, 2002

Association helps end the health insurance limbo


Staff writer

Pressed by an ever-increasing number of people working as temps, both the government and temp agencies are trying to increase measures to make life more secure for the workers in this category.

On May 1, the Temporary Workers' Health Insurance Union was established, becoming the first group of its kind.

"Amid the liquidation of many health insurance unions, this is the first time in 13 years that such an union was newly formed in Tokyo," said its director, Reizo Mohri, adding that its membership has reached 110,000 workers employed at 132 companies.

From its start, the group is the 16th-largest in terms of membership out of 1,700 health insurance unions nationwide.

Before the union came into being, temp workers were in limbo when it came to health insurance.

"Due to the nature of their jobs, temporary workers' terms of employment are rather short and intermittent and their workplaces tend to change. They are not beneficiaries of the existing health insurance scheme," Mohri said.

For instance, some large temp agencies with 10,000 or more registered workers operate an insurance scheme. However, many temps register with a multiple number of agencies and tend to switch from one job to another.

Until the new insurance association was established, temp workers had to constantly switch between a corporate health insurance operated by the job agency they registered with and the state-run health insurance scheme.

As many of the temp contracts last only for a few months, the procedures of switching health insurance plans all the time are troublesome, leaving many uninsured for certain lengths of time.

The problem of temporary workers lacking health insurance could not be overlooked, and various organizations, including the Japan Staffing Services Association, began to address the issue in earnest.

"The merger of the health and labor ministries as part of a sweeping realignment of the government in January 2001 provided an excellent opportunity to introduce a new health insurance for temp workers, making it possible for parties to sit and discuss about it," Mohri said.

The new health insurance association, launched in May, has special features to match the particular requirements of temp work.

The 8-percent insurance premium paid from the policyholder's salary, shared evenly by employee and employer, is slightly lower than that for the state-run insurances, which charge at least 8.5 percent.

In the past, insurance expired automatically with the expiration of each work contract, but the new insurance allows workers to be covered with the same insurance for a certain period regardless of whether a subsequent job is taken.

If the next job is found through the same agency as the first one, and starts within one month, the initial insurance can be kept intact at the discretion of the temp agency with the same burden between employer and worker.

Even if the next job is not found, the worker can request a continuation of the insurance for another month, and face a lower premium than that of the state insurance.

If a subsequent job is not found after the first month, the worker can be covered by the insurance for a maximum of 23 months, but will have to shoulder the premium for both employer and worker.

The union provides other services to make its member temporary workers feel secure in their jobs.

Two call centers have been set up. One is to help the workers with mental problems, and another to respond to inquires about the workings of the insurance system itself.

At the former call center, specially trained nurses are kept on standby around the clock. Members of the union can also see specialist doctors by appointment.

Mohri said: "Our members are almost all young, enthusiastic workers with no families to support, providing this organization with a strong foundation. We believe the association will grow steadily for years to come.

"We cannot help it, as it is a completely separate scheme, but temp workers suffer the same disadvantage as far as pensions are concerned. I hope this issue can also be cleared for temp workers in the near future."



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