Worrying times for job security in Japan

The year 2016 was no walk in the park for workers nationwide. At one extreme, we have Matsuri Takahashi, a 24-year-old worker who felt she had no other choice but to take her life as a result of overwork.

In October, the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare released its first ever white paper on karōshi (death from overwork). The fact that the ministry can publish such a paper is a chilling reminder of the cruelty of the country’s workplace environment.

More than 1,500 people applied for industrial accident insurance due to work-related mental illness in fiscal 2015, according to the paper, noting that insurance was paid out in 96 cases where workers died of heart or brain failure, and in 93 cases of suicide or attempted suicide caused by mental health issues.

Statistics compiled by the National Police Agency are perhaps even more alarming. The NPA believes that 2,159 people committed suicide in fiscal 2015 due to work-related issues.

Labor unions must surely be steeling themselves for the fight to come as they seek to reduce harsh working conditions, particularly death from overwork.
The government is currently pushing hard to “reform the way we work” (“hatarakikata-kaikaku”). Indeed, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has placed himself at the head of a panel dedicated to this goal.

My impression of Abe to date has been that the prime minister has been far more interested in making Japan more genki (healthy, cheerful) through his close contacts with Japanese business leaders and the leaders of the United States and Russia. He’s also been busy preparing for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games, and opening casinos. He never seemed to care about working conditions in Japan, so why the sudden interest now?

Abe has said he intends to resolve two workplace crises: remedying the country’s social ill that is overtime and reducing the yawning gap in conditions between regular and irregular workers by codifying in law the legal principle of “same work, same pay.” Unions have long been calling for these issues to be addressed so they cannot exactly oppose the government’s efforts.
With regards to his plan for reform, Abe wants “to turn Japan into a country that rejects the workaholic mentality.” He also wants to “abolish irregular employment.” Hmm.

The media has taken Abe at his word, praising him for finally getting serious about these issues. However, being the cynic that I am, I take his goal to abolish irregular employment to mean the exact opposite. I cannot help but suspect that he ultimately wants to eliminate high-cost stable jobs and make the workforce completely mobile. With no one enjoying job security, there will naturally be no such thing as regular or irregular employment. Or, rather, contingent work will become the new “regular.” It must be remembered that Abe reportedly feels nothing but animosity toward labor unions, even heckling an opposition lawmaker for being in the Japan Teachers Union during a Diet session.

Abe is also close to the head of Japan Federations of Economic Organizations, as well as to the presidents of many large businesses. He has done everything to act as salesman in chief for the country’s business world. It’s hard to believe that he suddenly cares about workers.

The word Abe used for workaholic was “mohretsu shain.” These are the workers who slaved morning to night during the country’s three decades of economic growth in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s. The three “sacred treasures” of labor that created the postwar “salaryman” stereotype were in full force: lifetime employment, a seniority-based pay rise system and company unions. These workers sacrificed time with their families, swore loyalty to their corporations and worked with fierce intensity. In exchange for giving up their private lives, they enjoyed nearly guaranteed employment through to retirement. They were only ever at risk of getting fired over a particularly grave offense.

Today, mohretsu shain are often treated more like war criminals. These workers are depicted as middle-aged wage thieves with little ability and low productivity. These employees are often given special privileges and pocket high salaries. Management then typically pits workers against each other to prevent them from coming together in solidarity. The more categories of workers there are, the easier this divide-and-rule strategy works. With workers fighting each other, they do not unionize and the end result is that everybody loses their job security. It’s crucial that workers don’t fall into this trap.
Let’s now examine the principle of same work, same pay. Under this principle, regular and irregular employees should receive the same wages for doing the same job. Such a principle is codified in law by many European nations, but there is no such principle in Japan, where irregular workers make up about 40 percent of the workforce. For more details, see my June 26 article titled “‘Same work, same pay’ goal may spark a race to the bottom

The biggest issue is wage disparity. Irregular workers earn less than 60 percent of the salary that regular employees typically take home. To reach parity, the wages of irregular workers should be raised, yet conventional wisdom suggests that the traditional seniority-based pay system, by which wages rise with years of service, should be dismantled. Ultimately, however, senior workers would probably feel pressured to quit after their salaries were reduced.

On Dec. 16, the Asahi Shimbun reported that guidelines pertaining to same work, same pay would be issued soon. Apparently, these guidelines do not include severance pay or dispatch agency wages. Not paying any severance itself would reduce wage disparity but, again, in a negative way that helps no one. It seems likely that severance pay is ultimately likely to suffer at the end of this reform.

Of greater concern are items included in a Dec. 14 report compiled by the government’s Council of Advisers on the Labor Policymaking Process (bit.ly/2heVa1y)

“As working patterns and related issues become increasingly diversified, basic issues — including issues that don’t fit into the conventional framework of management and labor, and issues related to the structure of labor — should perhaps be debated as a system, not necessarily restricted to the three-part structure of public, labor and management,” the report says.

In effect, the report calls for a reduction in the number of participants who represent unions in deliberations. Abe’s panel on labor reform has just one union representative: Rikio Kohzu, chair of the Japanese Trade Union Federation. Rather than listening to what workers have to say, Abe appears to want to eliminate their voice completely.
Labor reform is to be encouraged, but not if it is led by government and big business. We will see how it all pans out in 2017. Stay tuned.

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.