Unlike with the French, a lack of fight spells future gloom for Japan’s workers

For about a decade the Japanese government has been loosening its labor laws. Companies that were forced to restructure in the 1990s demanded more flexibility in hiring, so the government expanded the number of job types that could be covered by temporary workers. The result has been a steady erosion of wages, since companies who hire temps deal with agencies rather than with unions or the workers themselves. They ask for lower wages and the temp agencies accommodate them.

On average, a full-time temp worker takes home about one-third the pay of a full-time company employee. But full time employees may lose even that advantage if the government and business community have their way.

Last June, the Japan Federation of Economic Organizations (Keidanren) proposed that regulations standardizing the 8-hour workday be eased.

In practice, what this means is that Japanese companies will no longer be compelled by law to pay office workers overtime if they put in more than eight hours; which in turn means that companies will be able to compel workers to stay at the office longer without adding to their labor costs. In the only country in the world that has a word for “death from overwork” (karoshi), such a development is chilling.

Next year, the government plans to submit a bill to the Diet for a Labor Contract Law, which will allow any company to set its own labor standards.

The bill will include the formation of a special commission that ostensibly protects workers’ rights, but such a law would in effect eliminate labor unions since it’s unlikely employers would allow collective bargaining clauses in their employment contracts.

At present, anyone who is fired for reasons they believe are unfair can take their employer to court. That option would probably become more difficult under the Labor Contract Law.

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