--The Asahi Shimbun, Oct. 29
EDITORIAL: Nonregular workers' pay
The Japanese Trade Union Confederation (Rengo) has decided to demand bigger wage hikes for part-time, temporary and other nonregular workers than the pay raises for full-time employees during next year's spring wage offensive. We welcome the decision.
The nation's largest labor organization says it will try to narrow the income gap by demanding larger increases in terms of hourly wages for nonregular workers than those for regular employees. Officials at labor unions belonging to Rengo will start discussions Nov. 1 on how to achieve the goal.
This is a groundbreaking policy shift for Rengo, which has traditionally focused on the interests of full-time employees who make up 90 percent of its members.
The move was prompted by a decline in the average wage level of Japan's work force due to a sharp rise in nonregular workers.
Over 15 years since 1995, the number of permanent employees has decreased by about 4 million, while the ranks of nonregular workers have grown by about 7 million to account for more than a third of the overall work force. As a result, the rate of unionized workers has fallen below 20 percent, eroding labor unions' bargaining power.
Despite the longest postwar economic expansion between 2002 and 2007, the average gross pay for Japanese workers has sunk 12 percent from its peak in 1997.
Shrinking paychecks have choked growth in consumer spending.
In addition, companies shed a huge number of nonpermanent workers during the economic crisis that began in fall 2008.
Union members on the regular payroll realized that their positions are being saved at the expense of the jobs of their nonpermanent colleagues, according to union leaders.
In a bid to stem the trend, Rengo has pledged to place greater importance on the interests of nonregular workers, showing its commitment to redressing the disparities between the two groups over the long term.
But it remains unclear how Rengo's new goal can be achieved.
The yen's sharp rise has aroused strong anxiety about the outlook for corporate earnings, and concerns remain about the trend among companies toward shifting operations overseas.
What Rengo has decided to demand is a higher share of nonregular workers in the pay increase for next year that doesn't involve a cut in the salaries of full-time employees. Still, it could spark howls of discontent among regular employees.
What is needed is a serious joint effort by the unions and the management of individual companies to share income in a fair manner. Such efforts should be based on a clear understanding of the effects of economic inequality on society and businesses.
Last year, Hiroshima Electric Railway Co., in response to a demand by its labor union, gave full-time positions to all contract workers by increasing its funds to pay wages.
In the United States in the late 1990s, a transport industry union staged a prolonged strike at United Parcel Service Inc., a major package delivery company, demanding better working conditions for part-time workers who were paid only about half the hourly wages of full-time employees. The company eventually agreed to a 3-percent pay raise for full-time employees and a 7-percent wage hike for part-timers to narrow the gap.
In both cases, the union succeeded in getting its demands granted by preventing a division among members. It provided detailed information to members about the issue while enlightening management on the serious effects of income disparities, such as weakened morale and declining quality of services.
It is also important to support such efforts by establishing a system to ensure fair work conditions based on the principle of equal pay for work of equal value.
Another key step is to increase the responsibility of companies that use temporary workers placed by staffing agencies. This is crucial for supporting such workers' labor talks with businesses that use them. Unfortunately, this measure has been dropped from the revision to the worker dispatch law.
Bolstering the foundation for economic growth requires ensuring that hard work, either by regular or nonregular workers, is rewarded accordingly.