Temporary Worker Law

Mainichi Shimbun, 20 May 1999

On March 19, the Lower House Labor Affairs Committee approved a bill to amend the temporary worker law, which could have a major impact on the labor market and on improving the lives of working people. But it could also turn out to be a double-edged sword.

If the bill is enacted and implemented in its current form, temporary workers, who are currently limited to 26 job categories such as interpreting and software development, could be used as a means of meeting short-term demand for various types of labor.

If a permanent worker were to take a one-year maternal leave, for example, her company would now be able to hire a substitute from a temporary worker agency. The new law would offer advantages to the companies, which hire the services of temporary workers as well as to the temporary workers who place a premium on their personal freedom.

But the bill also raises many concerns. Corporations have long called for the liberalization of the temporary industry to help slash their personnel costs. Many corporations have already begun to lay off their permanent employees and increase their reliance on temporary workers and part-timers. The amended law could conceivably accelerate this trend, which would be regrettable.

In drafting the bill, the Diet did insert clauses to discourage the use of temporary workers as substitutes for permanent workers and to safeguard the rights of temporary workers. The amended law would prevent companies from hiring a temporary worker to perform the same job for more than a year. The companies and temporary agencies, which violate this stipulation, could be punished with a public warning or fine.

The bill also stipulates that employers would be held responsible for sexual harassment of temporary workers. Currently, temporary agencies can exercise little leverage over their corporate clients, so companies often violate the rules or break worker contracts with impunity.

The amended law would enable temporary workers to seek damages from companies, which engage in sexual harassment or break employment contracts.

But can companies be made to follow the letter of the law? Since the temporary worker law was initially enacted 13 years ago, the temporary industry has undergone rapid expansion and the prolonged recession has contributed to this growth. Today, some 6,500 temporary agencies generate revenues of more than 1.3 trillion yen and employ more than 860,000 people. But the working conditions of temporary workers could hardly be described as enviable.

Workers are fired before the end of the contract terms, working conditions at some jobs have grown worse, data on workers employed by large temporary agencies has been improperly leaked, and workers have been denied social insurance benefits. Troubles involving temporary workers are on the rise in Tokyo and other prefectures.

While some of these problems can be attributed to flaws in the current law, the Labor Ministry and its local employment (Hello Work) offices also bear a heavy responsibility for not enforcing the law's provisions and cracking down on violators.

We hope that the House of Councillors puts even more teeth into the Lower House bill to guarantee the rights of temporary workers.