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Yawning pay, status gap hurting Japan's growing ranks of 'non-regular' workers

Career consultant Tomohiro Hirano, who is on an irregular employment contract at a "Hello Work" employment center, is pictured here leaving his workplace in Tokyo's Sumida Ward on June 8, 2016. (Mainichi)

It's a weekday, and people in search of work are reading job listings with serious looks on their faces. Certified career consultant Tomohiro Hirano, 46, is a staff member at the "Hello Work" public employment service center in Tokyo's Sumida Ward, and offers advice to job seekers.

One day, a middle-aged man who said he'd been laid off from a publicly listed company raised his voice at Hirano and said, "You wouldn't know how I feel right now," to which Hirano responded, "I do. I'm on an irregular employment one-year contract." Shocked, the man's anger subsided.

Hirano has been working as a non-regular employee since January 2012. The maximum length of his contract is a full year, and at the end of every fiscal year, in late March, his contract is renewed. He will lose his job after he completes his third renewed contact. To continue working at the "Hello Work" center, Hirano would have to apply to the job listing that it will put out and re-take an employment exam.

After taxes, Hirano's monthly salary comes out to approximately 220,000 yen, and he receives no bonuses. His yearly income is believed to be about half of the other career consultants at his workplace who are on "regular" permanent contracts. According to the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare (MHLW), some 60 percent of the staff who worked at "Hello Work" centers nationwide in fiscal 2015 were on irregular contracts.

The percentage of workers on irregular contracts in Japan has continued to rise; the trend has remained unchanged since the second administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Of the 42.69 million people in the Japanese workforce in 1989, 8.17 million were on irregular contracts, comprising about 19 percent of all workers, according to the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications. But those figures in 2015 were another story: Of the 52.84 million workers across the country, 19.8 million people, or 37 percent of the workforce, were on non-regular contracts. On average, the wages of "non-regular employees" are about 56.6 percent of "regular employees."

Those on irregular contracts in the private sector are dubbed "regulating valves" used to relieve stress generated by economic fluctuations, and are at risk of being laid off at any time due to any number of reasons, including poor corporate performance. When the world economy fell into crisis after the September 2008 collapse of Lehman Brothers, irregular employees were laid off left and right. But irregular employment is not a phenomenon unique to the private sector. Like Hirano, there are many who work on irregular contracts in the public sector, including in municipal governments.

Prime Minister Abe upholds "equal pay for equal work" to correct the salary disparity between regular and irregular employees as one of the main pillars of his pledge to create "a society in which all 100 million people can be active." But no one thinks such a goal can be easily accomplished.

"The fact that a staffer at a public employment services center is on an unstable employment contract," Hirano says, "is a pretty dark joke."

One morning in February 2014, Hirano hurried through the front doors of the "Hello Work" center where he worked. His contract was ending the following month, and he needed to submit an application for the job, get a recommendation letter, and take the test again to keep the same job he's had for a few years now.

"You'll be fine," a colleague with a regular employment contract said to him, as they issued his recommendation letter. "How irresponsible. How would you know," Hirano thought to himself, and exited the employment center feeling deflated. He then re-entered the building from the back door for staff, and took up his place behind the counter to begin his day as a career consultant.

Brought up in Miyazaki Prefecture on the southwestern island of Kyushu, Hirano came to Tokyo after graduating from high school. Aspiring to become a comedian, he worked odd jobs to get by. He lost his job when he was injured while working for a trucking firm. When he was receiving unemployment benefits, he learned about career consulting as a job, and after failing the exam multiple times, he was finally hired as one at the "Hello Work" center in Sumida Ward. He's had experience as both a regular employee and an irregular employee, and has also been unemployed. He's good with words, and finds his current job rewarding.

Every year in February, however, a heavy cloud blankets his workplace. Irregular employees grow increasingly anxious, with some saying they have to re-take the employment exam, while others say they have another year, and rumors go around that there will be staff cutbacks. Regular employees, meanwhile, find themselves walking on egg shells around their irregularly employed colleagues.

This past March, when he'd thought he had another year until he had to re-apply for his job, Hirano was told his contract would end for the second time since 2014, and that he would have to re-take the employment exam. Due to improvements in the employment climate, a program offering assistance to long-term unemployed individuals was abolished, and the number of career consultants was slashed. This is the paradox that Hirano faces: the harder he works and the better he does to match unemployed people with jobs, the greater the risk that he will lose his own.

Hirano's wife works at a college cafeteria kitchen for 910 yen per hour. His only child, a high school student, says he wants to go to college. Once Hirano paid for his son's college preparatory classes, he had zero savings.

He will never get a raise, nor does he get any paid days off for injuries or illness. He doesn't know how long he'll be able to work. "I have no regrets, since this is the life I chose. And it can't be helped that there's a gap between what I get and what regular employees who've been working hard consistently get," Hirano says. "But even so, isn't the gap just a bit too wide?"

When asked about the "equal pay for equal work" plan promoted by Prime Minister Abe, Hirano's expression turns hard. "It sounds fantastic, but it's unrealistic," he says. Hirano is a member of a labor union comprising irregular employees at "Hello Work" employment service centers across Tokyo seeking to narrow the gap between irregular and regular workers. But the membership rate is less than 10 percent. Because irregular employees come and go, it's extremely difficult to create a united front.

Meanwhile, a 49-year-old man who works from 8 a.m. to at least 6 p.m. six days a week at a logistics firm as a contract worker dispatched by a temp agency in Tokyo, gets paid Tokyo's minimum wage of 907 yen per hour. But since his commute fares are not paid for, his salary is effectively below minimum wage. All told, he makes less than 200,000 yen per month.

It was when he saw a colleague, who is on a regular employment contract, take a taxi to work because they were running late, that he felt the great disparity between himself and those who have more stable employment arrangements. He is seeking a raise in his hourly wages, but some of his fellow irregular employees worry that if they push too hard and the company can no longer support itself, they'd be doing more harm than good.

In its House of Councillors election pledges, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) says it will support all "100 million" ways of "shining" or "being active."

A man who works for a temp agency sometimes notices his waning stamina. "When I think about the possibility of not working anymore... I get very anxious," he says, in Tokyo's Toshima Ward on the night of June 6, 2016. (Mainichi)

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