Economic Challenges Spur Non-Traditional Employment in Japan
Alternative employment in Japan has included work-sharing, overseas jobs, and part-time employment. Work-sharing, or flexible work schedules, have given more people previously unemployed or not considering employment, such as housewives, stay-athome mothers, and retired seniors, the opportunity to enter the workforce and contribute to economic development. The greater numbers of Japanese workers willing to move overseas to find employment has also helped in the diversification of Japan's labor force. However, the tremendous growth in the number of part-time workers and the continued underemployment of youths in Japan is a growing concern to the Japanese government.
The Japan Institute for Labor Policy and Training (JIL) released a report in 2002 on work-sharing in Japan. According to the report, it is generally believed that when a country is in recession, the number of part-time and non-regular workers tends to decrease in order to lower costs and maintain the number of regular workers. However, what has been evident in Japan is that the number of full time regular Japanese workers has decreased while the number of part-time workers has increased. Although this may seem a reasonable means to combat lowered revenues and rising costs during times of recession, part-time workers in general do not have the same loyalties and career development as regular workers.
Thus, in Japan, work-sharing has been utilized to combat the rising number of part-time workers and has been a highly debated topic among employers in Japan. JIL's report outlines three types of work-sharing: 1) employment maintenance, 2) job creation, and 3) diversified working patterns. Employment maintenance work-sharing mainly targets midlevel employees, allowing them to reduce their work hours and share them among themselves. This allows the employees to stay employed with their wages adjusted for the hours they work. Job creation work-sharing involves cutting work hours at national and company levels so that the overall number of jobs can increase. Diversified work-sharing allows employees to choose their work hours in order to allow persons previously not considering employment, such as housewives and the elderly, opportunities to enter the labor market. These varied working patterns allow more persons to be employed in the economy.
Japanese companies have been experimenting with these types of work-sharing. For example, Sanyo Electric Co., Ltd. announced in January of 2003 they were introducing a work-sharing program in one of their factories. Over 200 employees were involved in the program which required workers to take three more days of vacation per month and reduce their basic pay by 12%. Sanyo estimates that as a result, the company will be able to retain its employees and save 100 million yen (US$921,000).
While in the past Japanese employees felt that assignments overseas were hardship posts with few career advancement opportunities, more people in Japan are seriously considering working abroad either for foreign or Japanese companies. As the job market becomes tighter and job vacancies grow scarce domestically, those who are unemployed increasingly view working abroad as a viable and attractive career move. This is even the case for more senior or mid-level workers. Besides opportunities in the West, many Japanese are interested in working in Asia, particularly in China, where many see huge potential for growth.
According to Tomoko Hata, Tokyo branch manager and marketing director of PaHuma Asia Co., a human resources company, the number of Japanese people registering with the company to pursue career opportunities abroad has increased tremendously over the past five years. "Before, it was mostly women who were looking for jobs abroad, but the recent trend is for more men to be registering with us. One reason is that Japanese companies have recently been giving workers fewer opportunities to work abroad than they did before. As a result, many of these men are looking to try and build their careers themselves by quitting the company and going overseas," Hata says. "Working abroad independently was considered something unusual and unconventional in the past, but now it is not. For many people, it is just one of the alternatives they consider," she adds.
Freeters, Part-Time Workers
In a nation that values seniority and still hires 90 percent of new employees straight out of college, the recession has caused many companies to severely restrict the numbers of new graduate recruits in order to retain their mid-level and senior employees. Thus, many unemployed young people choose part-time work as a means to earn income.
The slang term, "freeter," derived from the English-German combination of "freearbeiter' is used to describe these individuals. Arbeit is the German word for work. Many freeters perform mundane clerical tasks as well as work in menial jobs in convenience stores and restaurants. Freeters often move from job to job depending upon the availability of part-time positions and are unable to gain significant work experience or build up advanced skills.
Although in the past many freeters chose to engage in this type of part-time work in order to pursue other hobbies such as music or art, more and more people are forced to become freeters out of necessity. As a result, the average age of freeters is also increasing.
According to a white paper released by the Cabinet Office's Quality of Life Bureau, the number of freeters in their early 30s increased by 270 percent in 1989. The same study found that in 2001, one in five Japanese people between the ages of 15 to 34 were freeters or unemployed. Currently, there is an estimated 2 million freeters in Japan, approximately 4 times the number from 20 years ago.
In order to curb the numbers of freeters in Japan, the Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has announced new policies to assist these young part-timers in gaining full-time, regular employment. His policies include establishing job placement offices and distributing subsidies to companies hiring freeters. Whether his policies will indeed be able to stem the growing numbers of part-timers has yet to be determined.
It may be some time before Japan is able to climb out of its current economic recession. However, the ways in which its society deals with its current employment situation and its policies to sustain labor force development will greatly affect the country's propensity for a faster recovery. In the meantime, many Japanese people will continue to find different means to eke out a living under very challenging conditions.
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