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Temp Nation: Fighting Panasonic

Two former "dispatch" workers at a unit of the Japanese appliance giant are suing the firm.

(Photo by Reuters)

Editor's note: Temp Nation is a four-part series on the structural changes taking place in Japan, the world's second-largest economy. With the demise of Japan, Inc.'s lifetime employment policies, more than a third of the country's workforce is now underworked and underpaid. This series examines how some temps are starting to fight back. It also investigates the impact on foreign workers, and the political response to this growing social and economic problem.

KASUGAI, Japan — His bosses asked him to teach a co-worker everything he knew, said Makoto Nagae, 51. Then he was laid off.

When he complained to the local labor standards bureau, the six other temp workers in his unit were also let go. Five permanent employees stayed on.

Naturally, the other temps blamed him, at least at first. "They said, 'it's your fault,'" said Nagae, a reserved, skinny man who sported black designer glasses and a T-shirt with the word "Rumble" on it during an interview in March.

Since they were all good friends, Nagae was able to convince his former co-workers they'd all been wronged, he said. Still, they weren't willing to join him in a lawsuit against Panasonic Ecosystems, which owns the factory where they worked. Why?

"Because they're Japanese," said Nagae, in an interview at sun-lit hotel lobby here in Japan's manufacturing heartland. "They said, 'oh well, it can't be helped.' So they didn't try to fight. Japanese people are like that."

Asked what made him different, he said, "I was really angry."

Nagae is one of a growing number of Japanese temps who are fighting back against labor practices they say are increasingly skewed in favor of big companies and give scant protection to non-permanent workers.

Most only do so when they've got little or nothing lose. Nagae gave all his savings to his ex-wife, who lives with his two children ("There was a relationship" between his divorce and job troubles, said Nagae vaguely.) He now works as a cook at a yakitori (meat skewer) restaurant, and collects a monthly job trainee allowance from the government.

Nagae was assigned to Panasonic Ecosystems in August 2004 as a "dispatch" worker. As such, he was technically the employee of the dispatch firm, not Panasonic Ecosystems.

He became an expert at quality control work, which involved X-ray and other testing of electric components of ventilation equipment. He made 300,000 yen (about $3,200) a month. As the most knowledgeable worker in his unit, he often trained permanent employees.

Those permanent employees, five in his unit, made up to 500,000 yen (nearly $5,400) a month for the exact same work and hours, he says, and enjoyed benefits Nagae didn't.

In March 2009, just after training a permanent employee, the dispatch firm declined to renew his contract. He'd been a temp for nearly five years, even though labor regulations stipulate that most dispatch contracts should last three years maximum.

When he began a complaint process with the local labor standards bureau, Panasonic Ecosystems threatened to sue anyone in his unit who gave him information, he said.