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Wednesday, Aug. 27, 2008

Steps eyed for temps' plight

Staff writer

The Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry may submit a bill to the Diet this fall that will urge, but not require, temp staffing agencies to pursue regular employment for the workers they dispatch in a bid to bring more stability to the lives of the underpaid.

News photo
It's a job: As the ranks of irregular workers increase, more temp staff magazines are being published. YOSHIAKI MIURA PHOTO

Although experts welcome such an overture, they believe the measure will do little to improve the livelihood of so-called irregular employees unless it is binding.

The nation's ranks of temp and irregular workers generally lead unstable lives with uncertain futures.

Such income instability, some argue, may have been a motivating factor behind a temp worker's murderous vehicular and stabbing rampage in June in the Akihabara district in Tokyo. The suspect was reportedly frustrated by his employer's restructuring plan.

The ministry is looking to revise a law to urge temp agencies to provide regular employment to workers who have registered with them for a certain period, ministry official Hidejirou Suzuki said, adding, however, that the length of registration has yet to be defined.

The ministry also wants temp agencies to push companies into hiring their irregular workers as full-time employees if they have been on-site for six months, Suzuki said.

Typically, irregular workers register with temp agencies, which then dispatch them to companies in need of temporary help. When the recipient firms no longer need the workers, they are dismissed and their labor contracts with the agencies are also terminated.

The ministry is hoping that under its planned revised arrangement, a temp agency would be the actual employer, and merely send its workers to other companies as part of the agency's business. When the dispatch period ends, the workers would remain employed by the agency.

Both the current and proposed systems would essentially offer the same types of jobs.

According to a 2005 ministry survey, "irregular" temp workers put in an average of about seven hours a day, five days a week, while "regular" temp workers logged about eight hours a day, five days a week.

The two categories' wages differed.

The survey showed that most irregular temp workers earned an hourly base salary, while more than half of regular temp workers were paid by the month. Thus irregular temps earned an average of around ¥180,000 monthly, while their regular temp counterparts were paid ¥230,000.

A ministry official noted that part-time and temp jobs are perfectly fine for young workers, but their income can't support having a family, and thus they refrain from pursuing this option, further contributing to Japan's chronically low birthrate.

"If you ask if they could feed themselves only on their pensions, they would also say no way," the official said.

Definite-term labor contracts have other problems.

Employers are generally reluctant to provide irregular workers with proper job training to enhance their skills, the official said. "If masses of such (untrained) people reach their 50s or 60s, it will be a problem for the nation," he said. "Individuals will be extremely unhappy."

Last month, a panel of the ruling coalition compiled suggestions for rethinking the current temp system. The group asked the government to take steps to stabilize the employment of irregular workers by pressing corporations to take them on as regular full-timers if they so desire.

The group also called for measures to ensure that temp workers receive pay commensurate with their tasks.

Based on the panel's recommendations, the ministry has been weighing measures to improve the situation.

"Those (irregular temps) should become regular workers as soon as possible, establish careers and skills, have families and contribute to society," the official said.

But he maintained that issuing a nonbinding request to temp agencies is the right course of action, because the ministry believes the industry will respond appropriately if it has a certain amount of leeway.

The ministry also has no plan to outlaw irregular temp employment because it addresses a labor supply-demand imbalance.

"There are people (including housewives) who want to work when they want, and perform the jobs they like," the official said.

Employers want the option of hiring irregular temp workers just for the times they need them.

"It would be too much to say all dispatched (labor) is bad and should be prohibited," the official said.

Satoshi Kamata, a prominent journalist who follows labor issues, praised the ministry's overall direction. The ministry may have realized the deregulation it has pursued helped create the income divide and it is now trying to close it, he said.

Dispatching workers was legalized in 1985, when corporations demanded professionals specialized in information technology and other fields. After the burst of the bubble economy, companies reduced their ranks of permanent full-time employees and tapped the temp workforce to slash labor costs.

The government initially limited the legal scope of dispatch worker professions. But in 1999, it legalized the dispatch of workers in most occupations. The number of dispatched workers nationwide jumped from 330,000 in 2000 to 1.3 million in 2007.

As temp employment became widespread, so, too, did the wage disparity between such workers and regular company employees. According to the ministry's 2005 survey of 45- to 49-year-olds, regular workers in general earned ¥5.9 million a year, while temps earned only ¥3.1 million.

Irregular workers constantly face abrupt layoffs, leaving them insecure and even desperate, Kamata noted.

Corporations "have long continued to treat temp staff in a way that inevitably makes them feel desperate and unable to lead normal lives," he said, adding this pushes some to commit crimes. "The situation has reached a critical point."

Kamata blamed politicians for causing a situation in which such insecure workers commit crimes out of despair.

He voiced hope that the ministry can act to rectify this problem. The government should quickly work out ways to gauge if the industry abides by the new proposals and seek ways to punish staffing agencies that don't comply.

We have to question "whether (the government) can enforce a law that will allow temp staff the chance to lead stable lives and have hope for the future," Kamata said.

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