Curse of part-time work shatters Japan's middle-class dreams

AFP, Asia News, Sunday 6 February 2005

Isao Munakata calls himself a house-husband. At age 33, he has never been able to find a full-time job, despite holding a graduate degree, and devotes his many free hours to volunteer work. He earns only 100,000 yen (962 dollars) a month in irregular clerical work and depends on his wife's stable job as a school teacher to make ends meet. He sees little hope in the future.

Unless Japanese managers change their hiring practices, I may never be able to get a full-time job, he said.

Japan's unemployment rate at the end of 2004 was 4.4 percent, the lowest in six years. But the figure masks the paucity of jobs available to new workers such as Munakata, for whom Japan's one-time promise of stable lifetime careers has become a myth.

After a decade of corporate restructuring, a third of Japan's workforce is now in part-time or contract jobs, a trend policy makers worry will erode contributions to the social safety net and further discourage people from having children in a rapidly ageing society.

A phenomenon known as ‘freeters', workers who are free-minded but financially unstable, began at the peak of the 1980s economic bubble when young Japanese shunned the regimented corporate world in favour of the more flexible hours offered by part-time work.

But according to a 2003 government survey, 70 percent of freeters aged 15 to 34 would now prefer to have full-time jobs.

Like other industrial nations, Japan has taken to downsizing and automation, with firms seeking lower paid workers at home and abroad.

Part-time and temporary workers, who earn only a third of the average full-time annual salary of 3.87 million yen among the group aged 15 to 34, now account for about 32 percent of all employees in Japan.

While this enhances employment flexibility and reduces labour costs, increasing dualism (in the work force) creates both efficiency and equity concerns, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) warned recently.

The Paris-based OECD has urged Japan to extend social insurance to more non-regular workers, believing that will discourage firms from hiring low-paid employees as a substitute for full-timers.

Traditionally in Japan people have found the most stable job opportunities only at graduation from high-school or university.

This means it is hard to join the workforce at any other time as a full-time worker, and the practice of hiring new graduates for long-term employment is fading, said Reiko Kosugi, senior researcher at the Japan Institute for Labour Policy and Training.

When companies fill vacancies, they hire people with skills and experience who can fit in right away. she said. This means young people with only part-time work backgrounds have no chance.

Jobs offered to high school graduates now total only 200,000 a year, down sharply from an average 1.68 million in the early 1990s, while offers to university graduates have declined to two-thirds of the levels seen a decade ago.

As a result, membership in the four-year-old Young Contingent Workers Union is growing fast. The union advocates better working conditions for part-time staff and contract workers across industries.

Salary levels for three- to six-month contract jobs, now increasingly common for men as well as women, have slumped 40 percent in the past three years, said Ryoko Sugawara, deputy secretary general at the union.

Convenience store chains, diners and security companies are the main sources of contract work.

People with university degrees are now living pay-cheque to pay-cheque, just like in America, she said.

With the widening income gap, a mindset of winners and losers is developing in a workforce that once largely thought of itself as a middle-class mass.

I think the sense of inequality is growing among those in the workforce, said Fumio Otake, associate professor, Institute of Social and Economic Research at Osaka University.

When the economy was expanding at a fast pace, there was a higher chance of turning fortunes around, he said.

Japan's economic growth potential is 1.3 percent, far below the US economy's 3.2 percent and falling from three to four percent in the bubble days of the 1980s, OECD data showed.

For her 1997 best-selling murder mystery ‘Out’, writer Natsuo Kirino researched the working conditions of middle-aged housewives making ends meet by doing the overnight shift at a factory making boxed lunches.

The more their husbands' companies trim personnel costs by using part-timers in poor working conditions, the further the wives are pushed to the bottom of the pyramid, she said in a recent newspaper commentary.

This is a tragic new structure that has emerged with the shattering of the middle class model.

Many young people turned off by the job hunt rely on their parents, but such support is not a long-term option.

I think our parents, in their 50s and 60s, are spoiling their children and being over-protective, said Daisuke Uemura, 24, who has a degree in industrial design but is unable to find a job.

Mine too, because they quickly offered to send 60,000 yen every month to support me when I decided to move to Tokyo to study further, he said.

The proportion of idle youth nicknamed NEET—not in education, employment or training—doubled from 1990 to 2003 to 16 percent of the young population or about 520,000.

When their parents retire or die, what are the NEET people going to do? They cannot find work; they are not good communicators, said Akiyoshi Takumori, chief economist at Sumitomo Mitsui Asset Management.

This is more than simply an economic issue. It's going to shake the foundation of Japanese society, he said.