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Temp Nation: The demise of "lifetime employment" in Japan

Wrenching change in the world's second largest economy. Now some are fighting back.

To get leaner, Toyota boosted its hiring of temps, he said, some of whom then saw their salaries slashed. Dispatch workers assigned to Toyota earned 1,800 yen per hour in 2004 but made just 1,150 yen per hour by 2007, said Kurematsu. (Toyota declined comment on those numbers but noted that such salaries were determined by the dispatch company.)

According to emails from Toyota spokesman Paul Nolasco, the firm used a peak of 1,350 dispatch workers on its assembly lines in 2004, but no longer uses such labor on the lines.

He said Toyota employs roughly 70,000 full-timers and about 4,000 dispatch office workers. On its assembly lines, its workforce includes 2,300 temps on fixed-term contracts of three months to three years — down from about 10,000 such contract workers on assembly lines in mid-2008, prior to the downturn.

Temps on fixed-term contracts make less than 60 percent what permanent workers make on average, according to a report from the National Labor Committee. (Toyota said it does not comment on employees' salaries. But it noted that more than 2,000 fixed-term contract workers have been bumped up to full-time employee status since 2007.)

Where are the unions?

Ironically, Japan has some of the most worker-friendly labor laws in the world. For example, there's no limit on the number of unions allowed at one company, and as few as a single worker are legally allowed to form a union.

The U.S. is responsible for that. Left-leaning American advisers drafted Japan's current constitution and related labor regulations during the post-World War II occupation.

But these days, Japan is dominated by large "company" unions that typically represent only permanent workers. Most come under the umbrella of Rengo, Japan's largest trade confederation with some 7 million members.

Rengo looks out for the wages of full-timers, but provides scant help for Japan's growing ranks of temps, most of who are non-unionized.

"These big trade unions have the same opinion as employers about everything," said Yamahara Katsuji, Osaka-based chair of General Union, a small independent union. "So they agree on the need for disposable workers in their factories."

Some top officials even rotate between union and management posts at the same company, he and others said.

"Nearly all major unions have close ties to management, inhibiting them from demanding improved work conditions," wrote sociologists Weathers and North.

Temp Nation the series:

The demise of fulltime employment

Fighting Panasonic

The foreign effect

A political solution?

Editor's note: This article was updated with the fact that 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.