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Tuesday, May 13, 2008

G8 talks take up labor inequalities, green role

Staff writer

NIIGATA — The Group of Eight industrialized nations must place more emphasis on a better work-life balance when drafting employment policies, Health, Labor and Welfare Minister Yoichi Masuzoe said Monday at a G8 conference on labor.

Government labor representatives from Japan, the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Canada and Russia attending the three-day conference in Niigata began discussing global labor issues, including ways to rectify regional inequalities.

"I have always believed it is important to focus on individual workers and not place too much attention on external frameworks, such as markets and systems," Masuzoe said in an opening speech.

In the Monday morning session, the G8 government officials detailed how their countries are coping with aging populations, according to Yoko Kamikawa, state minister for gender equality, who attended the meeting.

The French delegation said it is imposing higher taxes on companies that pressure senior employees into taking early retirement and slapping financial penalties on firms that fail to rectify gender gaps in wages, Kamikawa told reporters.

In Canada, the participation of women and the elderly in the workforce is particularly important because the nation is facing a labor crunch amid a brisk economy, Kamikawa reported.

In the afternoon session, the participants discussed measures the governments should take to support the socially disadvantaged, including the so-called working poor, according to a labor ministry official who briefed reporters.

Some participants asserted that providing unemployment benefits to those out of work for a long time tends to discourage them from finding a job, the official said, asking not to be named.

One participant touched on immigrants, saying they often have little choice but to take up low-wage jobs, the official said.

"Although immigrant workers have yet to be a big issue in Japan, they are likely to be so in the future," Masuzoe was quoted as saying by the official.

On Sunday, the government delegates held talks with business and union representatives to discuss labor issues.

But an evening news conference held by the three sides brought into sharp relief the conflict between management and unions in Japan on the issue of temporary workers.

Tsuyoshi Takagi, president of the Japanese Trade Union Confederation (Rengo), strongly criticized a proposal compiled by the OECD's Business and Industry Advisory Committee that called for further deregulation of the use of temporary workers.

"They say there are people who want to be temporary workers (instead of full-timers) and that regulations should be eased," Takagi said. "But most of the workers are not happy being temps."

In the past decade, Japanese companies tended to hire temporary workers over full-timers to reduce costs, forcing workers especially in the younger generations to work at lower wages.

As these workers grow older, they find themselves stuck in the workplace without a specific skill, making it difficult to find full-time jobs.

"I don't mean to argue" publicly with Takagi at a news conference, said Shoichiro Suzuki, vice chairman of the board of councilors of the Japan Business Federation (Nippon Keidanren), adding, however, that companies need to increase their competitiveness amid globalization, and thus the labor market needs more flexibility.

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The Japan Times

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