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Friday, Oct. 17, 2008

Temps: Product of a broken labor system

Insecure life of low pay, poor job conditions, threat of layoffs

Staff writer

Natsumi Maeda, a 26-year-old day laborer, says she worked at more than 50 companies in the last year and a half.

News photo
Power to the people: Holding signs that read "We want to work like humans," young people call for better conditions during a rally at Meiji Park in Shibuya Ward, Tokyo, on Oct. 5. NATSUKO FUKUE PHOTO

"I've come to realize companies treat day laborers as a disposable workforce," she said with a sigh.

Maeda, who was once a full-time company employee but quit for health reasons, said that when she was working as a day laborer at a foreign company's warehouse, someone there timed her and her coworkers' performance with a stopwatch.

"We were put on a list in the order of performance speed and those at the bottom of the list would be fired. There was barely a break. I was only allowed to leave for three minutes to go to the bathroom."

Maeda's situation is not uncommon among the growing number of young Japanese engaged in nonregular work.

According to a survey this year by the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry, 27.7 percent of the 15- to 24-year-olds who are working this year are engaged in nonregular work, up from 26 percent in 1995, while the figure for 25- to 30-year-olds rocketed to 24.8 percent from 11.9 percent over the same period.

Dispatching workers on a temporary basis was legalized in 1985 to accommodate people who wanted a diversified work style and businesses seeking to cut costs, but the job categories were limited to 13 occupations, including secretaries and translators.

In 1999, however, the Labors Dispatch Law was amended to allow temp workers to fill most occupations. When manufacturing was finally included in 2003, only a handful of professions, including lawyers and doctors, were still banned.

Due in part to the relaxation of the law and the resulting increase of temp workers at factories, nonregular laborers who have died or were injured during work jumped from 667 in 2004 to 5,885 in 2007, according to the labor ministry.

Efforts to improve the plight of temp workers are under way, but experts say they are far from sufficient.

After Tomohiro Kato, 25, a temp worker, went on a vehicle and stabbing rampage in Tokyo's Akihabara district in June, killing seven people and wounding 10 others, Health, Labor and Welfare Minister Yoichi Masuzoe said the dispatch of workers on a single-day basis should be banned.

Kato's motive for the rampage was partly attributed to his feelings of failure as a factory temp worker.

The Labor Policy Council, a labor ministry panel, studied ways to improve working conditions for temps, including urging staffing agencies to pursue regular employment for the workers they dispatch and pushing firms to hire their irregular workers as full-timers after a certain period.

However, the report the panel issued on Sept. 24 offered greatly watered down proposals, recommending only a ban on job contracts of shorter than 31 days between temp staff agencies and workers, thus leaving a legal loophole where firms can still get day laborers.

Takeo Kinoshita, a sociology professor at Showa Women's University in Tokyo, noted that the panel's proposals would still allow agencies to send workers to different companies on a single-day basis because the contract, whether for 31 days or longer, is between the worker and the agency, not between the worker and a company.

"The proposal actually shows temp staff agencies a loophole on how to continue the dispatch of day workers," he said.

Frustrated by their unstable plight, an estimated 4,600 people, most of them young, staged a rally at Meiji Park in Shibuya Ward, Tokyo, this month to assert their right to work as human beings and not as cogs in a disposable workforce.

Maeda, the 26-year-old day laborer, joined the rally. She said dispatch workers take their harsh conditions for granted. They feel good if a dispatching agency calls at 2 a.m. and tells them they have a job at 7 a.m. that morning.

"One day, I was sick and my body temperature was over 39 degrees. A doctor told me to stay in the hospital, but a manpower agency asked if I could still manage to work. I was financially unstable, so I asked the doctor if I could go to work, but the doctor scolded me. I realized then these kinds of working conditions are completely wrong."

According to the Tokyo Young Contingent Workers' Union, which organized the rally, the average hourly pay in 113 cases it surveyed in Tokyo, Chiba, Kanagawa, Osaka and Kyoto prefectures was ¥917. The daily average was ¥7,357.

But Masami Iwata, a professor at Japan Women's University in Tokyo, said that even ¥1,000 an hour is insufficient to live in Tokyo.

"Nonregular workers who have to pay expensive national health insurance and pension fees would have to work 48 hours a week," said Iwata, an expert on issues related to the working poor.

Makoto Kawazoe, chief secretary of the young workers' union, blasted the ministry panel's report because it has no provisions to improve working conditions for temps.

"The government should also guarantee temp workers the same treatment and pay (as regular full-timers). Currently, nonregular temp workers are paid much less than regular workers even though they do the same work," he said.

Kinoshita of Showa Women's University said temp staff agencies should hire workers as their regular employees to provide them with more stable jobs and wages. Nonregular workers have to live with great insecurity, he said, because agencies can dismiss them even in the middle of a contract.

The labor ministry should re-examine the occupations allowed for dispatch, he suggested.

"The ministry does not treat nonregular workers as humans," lamented one of the temporary workers at the rally. "We just want to lead a normal life."

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