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Photo from AMPO, Japan
Photo from AMPO, Japan: Campaign for protection of rights fo part-time workers

Movement For the Ratification of the ILO Convention on Part-time Workers: Japan Experience

Hiromi Sakakibara

Irregular employment of women has already been introduced in Japan. As a result the number of women who work as irregular employees, such as part-time, dispatched, contract and temporary workers, is estimated to be nearly 40% of all women employees. Part-time workers form the overwhelming majority and their low wages and discriminatory labour conditions are becoming big social problems.

In December 1993, the Part-time Labour Law was enforced in Japan. However, the law has been useless in solving the many problems faced by part-time workers. The prohibition of discrimination of part-time workers vis-a-vis full-time employees is not clearly stipulated by the law. Women are forced into part-time work and exploited as cheap labour based on the notion that household chores, child-rearing and sick care are considered only to be women's work. After the establishment of the Part-time Labour Law, the government ratified the ILO 156th Convention which stipulates that both men and women should bear family responsibilities and both sexes should not be given unfair treatment in the workplace because of their family responsibilities. From this point of view, the Part-time Labour Law does not protect the rights of part-time workers.

The Situation of Part-time Workers in Japan

The phrase "part-time workers" originally means workers who work fewer hours than those of full-time workers. However, in Japan part-time workers are those who are exclusively employed as irregular employees. There is a work category of "full-time part worker" who works more hours than part-time workers. They are excluded from the protection of the Part-Time Labour Law. Therefore, the main problem is the irregular employment of workers with unfixed working hours and employment terms, who are discriminated against because of their work status.

The numbers of part-time workers in the non-agricultural and forestry sectors in 1996 are:

  • Total number of employed workers------------52.19 million
  • Total number of women workers---------------20.35 million
  • Part-time workers with less than 35 hours----10.15 million (19.4% of total employed)
  • Women part-time workers---------------------- 6.92 million (34.0% of employed women )
  • Women account for 68.2% of workers working less than 35 hours.
Eighty-five point eight percent (85.8%) of part-time workers worked on an hourly basis in 1995. The average wage for part-time women workers is 870 Yen per hour. This hourly wage is 69.3% of the wage paid to full-time women workers in 1996. The wage gap is increasing year by year. Only 56% of part-timers are paid bonuses.

In 1996, the average working hours for part-time workers were 5.6 hours per day and 20 days per month. Average weekly working hours for part-time workers in 1994 was 30.3 hours (43.2 hours for regular workers). Average working days per week for part-time workers in 1994 were 5.2 days. (5.3 days for regular workers). Average work length for part-time workers is 6.7 years (7.9 years for regular workers).

Case studies

Community unions are organized based on areas, and any individual in any category of work can join. They organize workers who don't have labour unions in their workplace and many part-time workers who cannot join in company-based union. Below are some case studies of individuals who have asked for help from community unions during the past several years.

Ms. X has been working for the past six years as a part-time worker. Her job involves sending goods. She works from 10 am to 4 pm everyday. During the period of the bubble economy, the company forced her to work 2 hours overtime. After the collapse of the bubble economy, half of the part-time workers were forced to quit their jobs, in the pretext of decreased workload. Those who were not dismissed were forced to either shorten their working hours, or to be absent from work for two weeks a month.

Ms. G is a 47-year-old woman who has been working for a large supermarket for three and a half years. She works 6.5 hours per day, four days a week. She is entitled to 23 days paid leave, but cannot take them due to shortage of staff. It is very difficult for her to even take a lunch break of 45 minutes or even go to the toilet. The workload has increased due to the retrenchment of workers, but there is no corresponding wage increase.

Ms. B is 59 years old and is employed as a teacher in a public child care center. She has been employed on a six months contract for a five-day workweek. Per the contract, she was not entitled to any paid leave for the first six months. After six months of service, she is entitled to seven days leave a year (ten days according to the LSL). However her contract was not renewed until 20 days after the expiry of the six months contract, and the renewed contract did not permit her to the seven days leave.

As seen in the above case studies, a new way of exploiting workers has been introduced in the work place, in which repeated contract renewals allow employers to back out of commitments made in previous contracts. This forces workers to work repeatedly under poor conditions. In addition, although the work content is not so different from those of regular workers, big differentials are allowed between regular and part-time workers. In the case of large distribution businesses, part-time workers work longer hours than regular workers doing similar work do. They cannot take sick care leave or child care leave. When they retire, some of them are given only a 10,000-Yen momento.

Activities Towards the Ratification of the ILO Convention

The Part-Time Labour Act was enforced on 1 December 1993 and since then four years have passed. The Part-Time Labour Act was originally intended to improve the working conditions of part-time workers, whose numbers are increasing rapidly but who are unjustly discriminated against as compared to full-time employees.

In 1995 National Net, a national network for community unions, started a "Partner 175" movement. This movement is aimed at collecting 1.75 million signatures demanding the Labour Ministry and National Diet ratify the ILO Part-Time Labour convention and revise the Part-Time Labour Law. Up to last June they have collected 4,80,000 signatures. The demands include:

1) Equal treatment of part-time workers vis-a-vis regular workers should be clearly stipulated by law.

All kinds of differentials, such as the wage structure (regular workers are paid on a monthly basis whereas part-time workers are paid on an hourly basis), allowances, wage increase and promotion, differentials in bonus, educational training and retirement pay etc should be eliminated.

2) To eliminate the "fixed-period of employment" in the employment notice.

Part-time workers are those who work with shorter hours, but not those who work with shorter fixed-period contracts. Due to family responsibilities women are forced to choose part-time work. However, shorter fixed -period employment (they are forced to work on a three or nine month contract period and when the contract expires they enter into another contract to continue working) doesn't provide them with maternity and child care leave. Fixed-period employment with no rational reason should be prohibited.

3) Rights of part-time workers in the public sector should be stipulated by law.

The present law excludes public sector part-time workers as they are not covered by the National and Local Government Employees Law and thus not given any legal protection.


All over the world women’s irregular employment is increasing. There is a possibility that this situation will spread to other neighbouring Asian countries. In order to develop solidarity with women workers in other Asian countries, we hope to be successful in our movement in Japan.

(The author is a member of the Part-Time Labour Research Group to Consider Women’s Working Life in the Tokyo Metropolitan Area.)

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