‘Five-year rule’ triggers ‘Tohoku college massacre’ of jobs

I have discussed the “five-year rule” several times before in this column — the revision of the Labor Contract Law (Rodo Keiyaku Ho) enacted in 2013. Under the amendment, any worker employed on serial fixed-term contracts (yūki koyō) for more than five years can give themselves permanent status. See my earlier stories for more details, particularly my March 2013 column, “Labor law reform raises rather than relieves workers’ worries

The amendment was supposed to give workers more job security. Or at least that is what lawmakers claimed the purpose was. From the start I had my doubts — doubts that are now being borne out.

The fact is, employers are using the amendment as an excuse to fire their workers or change their working conditions before April 2018. When the law was enacted, it was not grandfathered to entitle those who had already worked more than five years. That meant the clock started on April Fools’ Day, 2013, and that the first time it will be possible to use this purported job-security measure will be April 1, 2018.

After enactment, some employers put new hires on one-year contracts with a three-renewal limit, or a five-year maximum with no renewal possible afterwards. It seems obvious this was to avoid being restricted by the five-year rule, which is really a “more-than-five-year rule.” Other employers are planning to either change their employees’ working conditions or fire or nonrenew their employees over the coming year, 2017. Again, it seems obvious that their intention is to avoid the new law and thereby violate its job-security spirit.

And this month I’ll name names — or a name in this case. This month’s installment delves into the “Tohoku University massacre.” This prestigious, famous and respected college with a long history and tradition has revealed that it plans not to renew the fixed-term contracts of up to 3,200 employees when they next come up for renewal. This kind of move — effectively a mass firing — is rare in Japan, and the plan has already had a huge impact in education and labor-law circles.

Tohoku University sits right in the middle of the Tohoku region, in Sendai. A total of 4,686 regular and 5,771 irregular employees worked there as of 2015. The university’s line is that it simply can’t be sure that it will be able to secure the funds in the future to pay for the staff it is planning to let go.

In April 2014, this national university unilaterally changed the official work rules (shūgyō kisoku) that apply to 3,243 of its irregular employees by placing a limit on renewals at a maximum of five years. Note that the five-year rule only goes into effect if you work more than five years (even one minute more). Still, just to be sure, the college grandfathered its own new rule back one year to April 2013, ensuring that everyone about to win permanent status in April 2018 would be kicked out just in time. It’s shocking even when a company does this, yet alone an institute of higher learning. These actions clearly violate the spirit of the Labor Contract Law amendment.

It may be that these days universities are even more brazen (or egetsunai in my Kansai dialect) than corporations. These past few years have seen case after case of contract nonrenewals (yatoi-dome in Japanese) of teachers and staff at universities. Japan’s shrinking youth population has hit universities particularly hard financially, a crisis made all the more acute considering that these universities have been transformed from places of higher learning to places of higher profit margins, where students are little more than customers. These businesses frequently change curricula in desperate attempts to appeal to potential students as the pool of customers in Japan continues to dwindle.

To deal with all these changes, universities expand the number of relatively cheap part-time teachers, who have chopped-up schedules and can be sacked with less difficulty. This makes it easier for universities to adjust their workforce to deal with such dramatic flux.

These trends are gaining traction at national and private institutions alike. Eleven elite universities (Hokkaido, Keio, Kyoto, Kyushu, Nagoya, Osaka, Tohoku, Tsukuba, Tokyo and Waseda universities, as well as the Tokyo Institute of Technology) saw the number of their teachers on fixed-term contracts balloon from 7,214 in 2007 to 11,515 in 2013. These teachers can only plan ahead for tomorrow and the next day; everything beyond that is uncertain. They live in fear every year, not knowing when they might be “nonrenewed.” Japan now has a glut of university teachers who find themselves in an environment very unconducive to earnest and constructive research. I think this is a tragedy for education, whether it be the sciences or the humanities.

Tohoku University handed out a single sheet of paper to its fixed-term employees informing them of the “massacre.” It also explained criteria used to decide which candidates would gain permanent employment status, according to General Secretary Noboru Shida of the Union of Part-Time University Lecturers in the Tokyo Area, a union that has been engaged in collective bargaining with Tohoku University over this issue. These criteria cited fixed-term employees who “had achieved on a par with or better than regular employees” as being judged worthy of continued employment.

I would argue that such criteria are so abstract that the university could simply determine eligibility arbitrarily. Those fixed-term employees who have worked alongside their permanent coworkers should become permanent after five years as a matter of course. Putting an abstract hurdle before them that does not exist for regular employees is a type of discrimination against fixed-term employees.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the five-year rule has a chilling effect on union activity. Workers wracked by anxiety about whether their contracts will be renewed each year are unlikely to take the daring step of joining a union with their coworkers. Employers see passionate union members as troublemakers and often decide (illegally) to rob them of their right to change to permanent status. Employers want to avoid permanent employment status because they themselves are unsure of their firms’ long-term prospects, so they struggle to dominate their workforce psychologically, defang the workers’ (and unions’) power and turn their employees into obedient sheep.

It appears we are a long way from achieving worker-employer equality, as is stipulated in Article 2 of the Labor Standards Act. The number of workers who fall unquestioningly into line will, unfortunately, increase in this environment.

That is, unless we go against the tide, unionize and fight back. Shida’s union is building its solidarity and has vigorously demanded retraction of the nonrenewal notices. Will the power of union solidarity or the power of a university giant prevail? As a union activist myself, I’d like to put my money on the union and give them whatever support they need.

Hifumi Okunuki teaches at Sagami Women’s University and serves as executive president of Tozen Union. She can be reached at tozen.okunuki@gmail.com. Labor Pains appears in print on the fourth Monday Community Page of the month.
Originally published in The Japan Times.