Opinion July 2018

New labour laws

Set to create 21st century ninjas

A series of labour reform laws has just passed through the Diet. The package consists of three pillars: equal work-equal pay; statutory limits to overtime work; and the promotion of flexible and diverse work styles.

It is the third pillar of the scheme that the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has always been most keen to push through. The other two pillars represent a concession to the opposition and trade unions.

The Abe team justify their recognition of the first two pillars by saying they are a means of raising labour productivity. It is a hallmark of the present government that it is reluctant to commit itself to anything that looks like protection of workers’ rights per se. Indeed, it has been its persistent and explicit position that labour reforms have more to do with economic growth than social justice.

From this perspective, the introduction of “flexible and diverse work styles” takes on crucial importance. It is the Abe team’s solution to the demographics-induced labour shortage.

The third pillar aims to facilitate the expansion of the workforce by giving people more choices about working hours, opening up wider possibilities for working from home, and making it easier for people to take on second and third jobs without violating their lifetime employment contracts.

Gig economy
A major element in the labour reform legislation which reflects this line of thinking is the “highly professional workers scheme”, whereby certain professionals will be paid for results rather than hours worked. Another way in which the government is trying to introduce “flexibility and diversity” into the Japanese labour market is through encouraging people to work freelance. The gig economy comes to Japan via policy inducement, in other words.

All this is very well. Flexibility and diversity are certainly good things. And yet, when you go back to the underlying motive behind all these ideas, a touch of the sinister creeps into the picture. The government’s insistence that labour reforms are more growth strategy than the pursuit of social justice is really very worrying.

If this is the aim, the promotion of flexibility and diversity starts to look like a means of pushing people out of the legally protected workplace so that they can be hired, used, and fired more cheaply by firms that the government considers of value to its growth strategy.

The “highly professional workers scheme” will, for the moment, only apply to people earning considerably above-average salaries. The govern­ment claims that this limitation will prevent the measure from being used as a way to introduce limitless overtime through the back door.

But people are rightly suspicious. Moreover, even for the high-earners, there is no guarantee that the pay they receive for their supposed superior output will always exceed the pay for hours worked had they stayed within the conventional wage system. For the most part, high quality output demands large quantity input. A lot of hard work, over long periods of time, is usually necessary to arrive at innovative solutions and creative ideas. That is the norm as scholars, journalists, system engineers, market analysts and, indeed, economists know only too well.

It is also highly questionable whether it is the job of the government to encourage people to enter the gig economy. Certainly, policy discussion is underway in all major countries concerning how to regulate the gig economy. But this is in response to the increase in the number of gig-style workers and a growing need to protect them from abuse and unfair work practices. Nowhere outside Japan does one see government policy involved in the business of gig work promotion.

Having gone through the government’s very many documents on their idea of “flexible and diverse work styles”, I am now convinced I know what these people are trying to do. They are trying to make ninjas out of us all.

The ninja is a very well-known figure in Japanese history. They were the guerrilla-style secret agents with enormous and sometimes even magical physical skills that helped warlords spy on each other and win wars. They were undoubtedly highly professional people. They were most certainly not paid for hours worked. They were paid for results and results only. They were all gig workers moving from job to job as their diverse roles demanded.

There was no such thing as a ninja dedicating his or her whole working time to the profession. They all had second and third jobs. A lot of them were farmers. Many of them were artisans skilled in a wide variety of crafts.

For all their highly developed professionalism the ninjas were always brutally at the mercy of their employers in terms of pay and treatment. Karoshi (death from overwork) was an everyday occurrence for them. We ought to keep all this in mind as “flexibility and diversity” enter the Japanese workplace.