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TOKYO, Feb 11 2010 (IPS) - A chorus of calls for changes in discriminatory work laws is spreading across Japan in the aftermath of waves of lawsuits filed by short-contract workers.
The interest in the plight of hundreds of thousands of labourers hired as temporary workers but doing regular work – with fewer benefits and at much cheaper cost to employers – is such that courtrooms where these cases are heard are often full.
Some 40 supporters of Shigemitsu Suzuki and Takayuki Hayashi, former workers at the Mitsubishi Fuso Truck and Bus Corp, trooped to the gallery of the courtroom at the Tokyo Higher Court for a hearing on their case on Jan. 26.
Last year, the two veteran production-line workers sued their former employer, which had abruptly fired them. Both in their late 30s, they had been working on dispatch contracts that had been renewed so often that they were working in the same capacity as the company’s full-time workers. Indirectly hired workers on dispatch contracts are called ‘haken’ in Japanese. One ‘haken’ worker, Fumiko Kondo, likened such labourers to trash, disposable at any time.
Suzuki and Hayashi are now asking the company to grant them full-time positions and compensation. “I was not sure, at first, if such an action would mean anything. But now I realise it is important to call for justice, telling people what is wrong,” Suzuki said at the filing of the suit last year.
In the wake of Suzuki and Hayashi’s legal action, dozens of similar court cases are now sweeping Japan, where unfair labour practices have been unveiled during the past years and are prompting workers to organise campaigns to lobby for changes in the law.
The appeals made in the different lawsuits vary. Some workers were paid much less than the amount promised, got paid late or were sent to do jobs different from what they were contracted for. Some were made to work long hours or under harsh or dangerous working conditions.
Others were kept on short contracts but did the same job for years, paid as temporary workers but engaged practically in regular jobs. They could be fired arbitrarily and with little, if any, safety nets to fall back on.
“It is always us who get fired first and very arbitrarily whenever business goes down,” says 42-year-old Kondo, a college-educated clerk in Tokyo who has worked in different offices on dispatch contracts for more than 10 years.
The rise of the use of ‘haken’ is linked to the dramatic transformation in Japan’s labour structure over the last 20 years. Amid the economic boom of the l980s, employers began hiring more temporary workers and downsizing regular, full-time workers on traditional lifetime employment in order to cut down on vast personnel costs.
During the recession of the early 1990s, companies continued to hire cheaper temporary workers. By then, this type of worker accounted for more than 20 percent of Japan’s employed labour force. It rose to 25 percent in 2000 and 30 percent in 2003, according to surveys by the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare. It hit a record 34.6 percent at the end of 2008.
Among those non-regular workers, the number of ‘haken’ workers alone had almost quadrupled to 3.81 million in 10 years.
As the U.S. financial crisis spread to the world in the fall of 2008, Japanese manufacturers rushed to shove dispatched and other short-contract workers out.
This happened especially in the automobile and electric appliance sectors. Called brutal ‘haken giri’ (the slashing of dispatch workers), the trend was reportedly widely in the media.
These jobless turned up at job placement offices or ended up homeless on the streets. Others camped at Internet cafés and some were driven to commit crimes.
Research by the government found that more than 150,000 non-regular workers were fired in the six-month period leading to March 2009. This trend continues to date. In December 2009, the government reported that 6,440 temporary jobs are expected to be lost by March this year, the end of the Japanese fiscal year.
This would put the total number of non-regular jobs lost in the 14 months to 256,731.
“The story goes back all the way to the birth of Dispatch Work Law that went into effect in 1986,” says Mami Nakano, a Tokyo lawyer who is chief coordinator for the Haken Work Network.
Despite protests by labour unions, that law allowed the use of workers on dispatch contracts in 13 business categories and allowed employers to “indirectly” hire professional or exclusively skilled workers – such as those in information technology — on ‘haken’ contracts with agencies.
Five years after the law came into effect, Nakano and her colleagues saw a notable surge in ‘haken’-related complaints and consultation calls from workers. They organised the Haken Work Network to focus on these issues, set up hotlines and analyse illegal practices, violation of human rights and lack of protection among dispatched workers.
Revisions in the law in l999 and in 2004 allowed the use of ‘haken’ in virtually all business sectors, including manufacturing .
Dispatched workers became easy prey for exploitation and a market- controlled transaction item, says Nakano. “Japanese employers came to take workers only from the viewpoint of cost. We need a system to provide justice equally for all workers. Otherwise, Japan will not survive in this century.”
Japan is still an “underdeveloped nation in labour law”, says Shigeru Wakita, a law professor at Ryukoku University in Kyoto.
He points out that Japanese employers protect full-time workers but not non-regular, atypical workers, unlike in European nations where wages and employment terms are provided on the basis of expected performance of specific jobs, no matter if full-time or part-time.
“The issue of dispatched workers is no longer a labour issue, but a social issue,” explains Wakita, among those who organised November’s ‘National Forum for Winning Rights of Non-Regular Workers’.
Local community unions are sprouting up across Japan and ‘haken’- specialised networks of unions and other groups are collaborating with them. Among these is the 380-member Tokyo Young Contingent Workers’ Union, which supports the workers Suzuki and Hayashi.
“A new movement is developing, this time by workers themselves, calling for the changes in dispatch work rules,” says Shuichiro Sekine, secretary of the Haken Union that has 300 dispatch-contract workers.
These groups are campaigning for changes in current laws under the new Democratic Party of Japan-led government. They want to see dispatch contracts barred from the manufacturing sector, employing companies take on more responsibilities and be subject to heavier penalties for violations.
Late last year, the Labour Policy Council submitted late a draft law on dispatch work arrangements to the minister of health, labour and welfare.
“We have to keep close watch so that the law will be revised in accordance with the ruling party’s earlier manifesto,” says Sekine of the Haken Union.
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