Please view the main text area of the page by skipping the main menu.

Japan's telework gap: Non-permanent staff less likely to be allowed to work from home

An almost deserted office is seen in Shibuya Ward, Tokyo, on Feb. 20, 2020. (Mainichi/Kimi Takeuchi)

TOKYO -- Remote work is being endorsed across Japan to tamp down novel coronavirus transmissions, but some businesses and public institutions are only allowing permanent employees to work from home, leaving out part-timers, contract staff and dispatch workers.

This disparity has developed despite government policy introduced on April 1 encouraging employers to pay permanent and non-permanent employees the same wages for the same work, reducing the gap in how the two categories are treated. The Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare has furthermore told the Mainichi Shimbun that it viewed not allowing people to work remotely just because they are not permanent staff as illegal.

One woman in her 40s employed as a dispatch worker at a top-tier manufacturing firm in central Japan's Aichi Prefecture couldn't believe her ears when her superior told her that "dispatch employees can't work from home."

The company stated that it wanted employees to work remotely from April as a general rule. Preparations then began for staff to take company computers home, but she was then told that in her case, "There's a danger that if you use the computer loaned to you by the company at home, information could get leaked."

The dispatch worker, who agreed to be interviewed by the Mainichi Shimbun under condition of anonymity, said angrily, "Permanent employees pose the same security risk, so it seemed to me like what they were actually saying was, 'We can't trust dispatch workers.' There must be ways (for temp staff to work from home) such as having them sign a (confidentiality) pledge."

She works in sales, and takes instructions from the sales department to ensure delivery dates are set appropriately and that the products are shipped, among other duties. The role can be done from home, and permanent employees fulfilling the same function are working remotely. The dispatch worker has been told by her boss and by her dispatch company that if she's worried, she can take time off, but then she would not be paid.

Commuters are seen filling a train station platform in Nakano Ward, Tokyo, on April 8, 2020, the morning after the state of emergency declaration was issued. (Mainichi/Takehiko Onishi)

Perhaps because she told her dispatch company that the policy is unfair, and asked them to approach her workplace's head office about the issue, about a week after first being told she is not eligible for remote working, the department's dispatch staff were summoned to a meeting.

There they were reportedly told, "As a company policy, dispatch workers can work from home, but the final decision is left up to each department head. This department has not approved the measures." Again, concerns over security were apparently cited.

Although she wasn't convinced by the explanation, she felt that all she could do was to accept the policy as she watched an executive say, "We are very sorry. Please take whatever actions you can, such as commuting at different times."

The dispatch worker remains concerned, especially because she lives with her elderly parents. But with no other options, she is continuing to go to work.

"Even with the equal work for equal pay policy starting, in reality disparities remain. I particularly want to see an end to inequalities on issues where lives are at stake."

But differences in treatment aren't limited to the private sector. One woman working on a one-fiscal-year appointment at Kobe City Hall in western Japan is continuing to go into work. She spoke on condition that the Mainichi Shimbun would not print her name or age.

Her one-year appointment is a new job category introduced in April as part of a system to improve the treatment of non-permanent workers. She has the same duties as permanent employees, as well as taking on small jobs like going to the post office or serving tea.

The Kobe Municipal Government issued a declaration on April 8 stating that it would "for the time being suspend non-urgent services" and that "remote working for employees will be greatly expanded" to prevent the spread of the virus. But she was not among those allowed to work from home.

Tokyo's Shiodome district in Minato Ward is seen deserted during rush hour after major local firms including Dentsu Inc. and Shiseido Co. decided to implement remote working, on Feb. 26, 2020. (Mainichi/Toshiki Miyama)

According to her superior, the reason for the decision was that "there isn't enough of the necessary equipment to connect you to the internal network from home." But she struggled to accept that she would have to come into work as usual, unlike permanent employees. What worries her particularly is the crowds on the trains during commuting times. But she said, "I only have a one-year contract, so if I get on someone's bad side it's all over. Even if I want to say something, I can't."

Approached for comment, the organizational planning division of Kobe's Administration and Finance Bureau responded, "Employees appointed for the duration of the fiscal year are also eligible to work from home, depending on their duties."

But she herself said, "Reasons are given, and then ultimately non-permanent staff are put in a position where they have to show up at work. I want them to allow us to work from home."

Private think tank Persol Research and Consulting Co. conducted an internet survey on 25,769 private sector employees across Japan from April 10 to 12, just days after seven prefectures were put under a state of emergency. The results showed that 27.9% of permanent employees were working remotely. For non-permanent employees, the rate was just 17%.

The equal pay for equal work policy has been introduced based on provisions in labor reform laws, and was rolled out for large companies on April 1. It will go into effect for medium- and small-sized businesses from April 2021.

"The government's request for companies to facilitate remote working makes no distinction between permanent and non-permanent employees," the Fixed-term and Part-time Work Division of the labor ministry's Employment Environment and Equal Employment Bureau told the Mainichi. "Firms must eliminate unreasonable disparities in all aspects of employee treatment, and if they are not allowing dispatch workers to do their roles from home, then that constitutes a violation of the Worker Dispatching Act."

Public employees are not subject to the equal pay for equal work policy. But the Local Administration Bureau's Local Public Service Personnel Department at the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications said, "The Local Public Service Act states that, regardless of whether someone is a full-time or part-time worker, it is not acceptable for individuals fulfilling the same duties to be treated unreasonably."

Haruki Konno, head of the Tokyo-based nonprofit organization POSSE, which specializes in labor issues, said, "I think that it's unrealistic for individuals in weak positions to negotiate these issues. One avenue for those people is to join a union that accepts individual applicants, or another group, and exercise their rights through that. Unions of private companies and civil servants should engage in this problem, leading to support for non-permanent workers."

(Japanese original by Miyuki Fujisawa, Integrated Digital News Center)

Also in The Mainichi

The Mainichi on social media