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Univ. of Nagasaki backs down on releasing contract workers seeking unlimited terms

NAGASAKI -- The University of Nagasaki withdrew its decision to halt employment of two non-regular employees who were to become entitled to contracts of indefinite duration this spring, after the Nagasaki Labor Bureau pointed out that the move ran counter to social norms, it has been learned.

The Mainichi Shimbun gathered information on the decision from the university and a local labor union. The two employees were to become entitled to unlimited contracts if their contracts were renewed for another term, in line with a recently introduced rule applying to people employed on renewable contracts for a period exceeding five years in total.

Ahead of a predicted surge in applications for a switch to contracts of indefinite duration from April this year, many employers have moved to halt employment of workers set to become entitled to such contracts in the near future -- action that has turned into a social problem.

Since hardly any other similar cases pointed out by labor bureaus have come to light, an expert says the Nagasaki Labor Bureau's move is significant in that the bureau clarified its stance that law-circumventing moves to prevent people from switching to unlimited contracts are unacceptable.

According to the University of Nagasaki and the Nagasaki branch of the National Union of General Workers, the two employees are system engineers handling computer servers at the university. One of them had been employed from April 2004 on fixed-term contracts ranging between one and three years, while the other had been employed from April 2013 on yearly contracts. If their contracts were renewed in April this year, they could apply to the university for a switch to unlimited-term contracts.

In October last year, however, the university told the two that it intended to stop employing them. At the same time, it advertised for system engineers on condition that their employment at the university would not exceed a total of five years. The pair then asked the university to retract its decision to terminate their contracts saying that it was trying to evade giving them unlimited terms, and asked the Nagasaki Labor Bureau to instruct the university on the issue.

A letter the Nagasaki Labor Bureau presented to the university in December last year pointed out that the contracts of the workers had been continually renewed and that the university was now advertising for system engineers whose total employment period would not exceed five years. The bureau thus judged, "There is no objectively rational reason to halt their employment and the move cannot be deemed reasonable in terms of social norms." It accordingly urged the university to refrain from operating in a way to circumvent the rule on switching to contracts of indefinite duration.

When contacted by the Mainichi for comment, the university said it would accept the bureau's claim "with utmost seriousness" and respond appropriately. The university clarified that it will continue to employ the two workers from April onward and will in effect do away with contract term limits of a maximum of five years in total for other non-regular administrative staff.

Taku Nakagawa of the Labour Lawyers Association of Japan, who is familiar with issues surrounding non-regular employees, said it was difficult in the past to legally rescue such employees when their contracts were discontinued. "There is great significance in the fact that the labor bureau demonstrated a strong stance, focusing on the actual situation of the contracts having been renewed so many times."

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