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About 60% of surveyed Japan freelancers harassed at work, labor laws insufficient

Mayumi Yahata is seen describing the harassment she suffered during her time as a freelance worker, during a press conference in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo, on Sept. 10, 2019. (Mainichi/Hidenori Yazawa)

TOKYO -- Around 60% of freelance workers in Japan have experienced power harassment, and close to 40% have been subject to sexual harassment, according to the results of a survey announced by three freelancer groups in the capital on Sept. 10.

The survey also revealed that around half of harassment victims had not spoken to anyone about their treatment. Although measures against staff abuse in the workplace were just legislated in May, freelance workers are not covered by the protections the changes offer. As the way people work increasingly diversifies, it is necessary to pursue measures to respond to a variety of employment practices.

"I was confused. I couldn't make a calm decision," said Mayumi Yahata, a former freelance internet videographer, at the press conference on Sept. 10. A year after she started her business, she was sexually assaulted by a man connected to her work. He used a meeting at a hotel he had told her was for business as the opportunity to commit the acts.

Yahata said that because the perpetrator is a well-known figure in the industry, she wasn't able to refuse him. She ended up having to take time away after the incident took a toll on her mentally and physically, and was diagnosed with complex post-traumatic stress disorder.

She never felt able to speak to anyone about the incident, and for years she avoided using the computer that serves as her working tool. "After I was assaulted, there was no kind of workers' or health related compensation,' she said, describing the hardships brought on by freelance working lifestyles, and seeking an eradication of such abuse.

The internet-based survey was carried out in July and August by the professional and parallel career freelance association, the Japan Actors Union and the Mass Media Culture & Information union freelance liaison committee.

It was aimed at actors, writers, designers and others in Japan whose jobs are often associated with freelance experiences. A total of 1,218 people, 29.7% men, 68.7% women and 1.6% not specified, responded. Of those, 61.6% said they had been victims of power harassment, and 36.6% said they had undergone sexual harassment.

Mental abuse, such as intimidation, defamation and abusive language, was the most common form of harassment cited, with 59.4% of respondents saying had experienced such treatment. In second were unreasonable demands at 42.4%, followed by economically motivated abuse at 39.1%.

Regarding sexual harassment, 33.7% said they had been subject to inappropriate enquiries into their private life, and 33.6% were mocked for physical attributes such as their appearance, body shape or age. There were individuals who reported very serious cases such as being raped or being made to see someone's genitals or watch them masturbate.

Many of the perpetrators of abuse were reported to be people in positions of power, such as directors and producers, with many trading partners and clients also implicated.

Despite the conditions, 45.5% said they had not consulted anyone about their abuse. Among the reasons provided, 56.7% said that even if they had spoken to someone, it wouldn't have solved the issue.

A total of 53.7% cited potential damage that consultation could do to working and personal connections as a reason not to speak out. Fears of losing business and work were mentioned by 42.8% of respondents. Additionally, over 20% said they had quit work after experiencing abuse or suffered from mental and physical issues.

A woman in her 30s who works in the film and television business said at the press conference, "In my industry, there are many people who don't understand what qualifies as harassment." She said that she had been removed from work and even left unpaid by male clients who had expressed an interest in her. Looking back on those incidents, she said, "There was no written contract, so I had no way to voice a complaint."

She added that she had also been subject to harassment when she was pregnant, and with regards to maternity. "It's hard to continue working and raise children in an industry which offers no compensation or coverage. It almost breaks my heart," she said.

She called for the establishment of consultation space for freelance workers, and the creation of industry specific guidelines setting out criteria of what constitutes harassment.

Meanwhile, a separate internet survey by the Japanese Trade Union Confederation, the country's largest labor organization, in May showed that 37.5% of workers had been subjected to harassment. While it isn't possible to make clear comparisons with their survey and the latest results, it's thought that a large number of freelance workers, who do not enjoy the same rights as employees, are working from a weak position of power.

According to the Japan Institute of Labor Policy and Training, there are around 1.7 million freelance workers across the country, accounting for about 2.5% of the overall workforce.

It's expected that the number of people working on a freelance basis will increase as ways of making a living become more diversified in Japan. But it appears that under present conditions, it is easy for companies and other clients in positions of power to subject such workers to harassment including demanding they agree to unfair contracts.

In May, amendments to the Act on Comprehensive Promotion of Labor Policies, Stability of Employment of Workers and Enhancement of Occupational Life were passed which legislate against power harassment for the first time.

It reads that if words and deeds carried by an individual in a position of dominance over another person exceed the parameters of what is acceptable in the workplace, then the working environment of employees is being infringed upon.

In attempts to prevent harassment at companies, the amendment also states that companies must establish a system for consultation, and that firms must not handle complaints in a way that disadvantages victims.

But, in national laws including the Act on Securing, Etc. of Equal Opportunity and Treatment between Men and Women in Employment, only harassment occurring in the workplace is described. Freelance workers who are not employed by companies fall outside workplace protections described in the country's labor laws.

In June, the International Labour Organization adopted a treaty forbidding violence and all forms of harassment at work. These are not limited to inside the workplace, and also apply to third party individuals such as customers and freelance workers. In Japan, there is no national law with provisions to forbid acts of harassment against them, and the ratification of the treaty appears to be difficult.

The amendments to the Act on Comprehensive Promotion of Labor Policies, Stability of Employment of Workers and Enhancement of Occupational Life are expected to go into effect at large companies from April 2020, and in medium to smaller businesses in April 2022.

Under the law, stipulations regarding measures to protect freelance workers, students hunting for jobs and trainee teachers will be written into separate guidelines.

On Sept. 10, the three groups petitioned the Ministry of Health Labor and Welfare to include freelancers among those protected by its guidelines against harassment. They sought clarification in writing that would ban unfair treatment toward freelance workers, and give them the right to use consultation facilities at companies that outsource work to them.

(Japanese original by Hidenori Yazawa and Keisuke Umeda, Lifestyle and Medical News Department)

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