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Wrenching change in the world's second largest economy. Now some are fighting back.
The temp trend is also a factor in lower marriage and childbirth rates, since temps with no job security are unattractive mates. The marriage rate was 5.8 per 1,000 people in 2008, down from more than 10 per 1,000 people in the early 1970s.
And the trend has increased pressure on full time, permanent workers, who have to take up the slack in workplaces filled with low-morale temps who have little incentive to work hard.
"Increased use of non-regular workers often creates heavier workloads for the remaining workers, who are expected to make up any shortfalls without concern for time," wrote Osaka-based sociologists Charles Weathers and Scott North in a recent article.
The 2007 Japanese Lifestyle White Paper survey found that 67 percent of regular workers believed their job burdens and responsibilities were much greater than five years before.
How Japan got here
Japan's stratified labor market didn't happen overnight, or by accident.
Until the 1980s "indirect" employment, or employment through a third party such as a dispatch firm, was illegal. In response to business pressure, the government began relaxing hiring rules. Deregulation continued after Japan's economy went into a tailspin and entered its "lost decade," then accelerated under pro-business prime minister Junichiro Koizumi.
The "dispatch law" was passed in the mid-'80s. In 1999 the law was relaxed to allow dispatch labor in 26 specialized industries, according to Yasushi Iguchi, a labor economist at Kwansei Gakuin University, and in 2004 it was further relaxed to allow short-term dispatch labor in the manufacturing sector.
Large auto and electronics manufacturing firms led the way in a temp-hiring surge, driven by cost-cutting plans, Iguchi said.
"Automakers hired a temporary work force because that was a better fit with the 'just-in-time' delivery system," he said. "These workers are very flexible. They're 'just-in-time' laborers."
Toyota is typical. In 2000, the company began a program of aggressive cost-cutting, according to Saichi Kurematsu, chairman of the Aichi Prefectural Federation of Trade Unions, whose members include 10 Toyota employees.
Toyota targeted 30-percent cuts in the first three years, and 15 percent more cuts in the next three. Last December it announced planned cuts of an additional 30 percent, Kurematsu said.