In Japan it is still the case that most workers are "company men." Leaving a company before you retire to simply start working somewhere else is something which is only just becoming more popular but still by no means common. These days, a person gets his status from which company he works for more so than from his family name or even his actual profession (unless he’s a doctor with his own surgery/hospital) and he owes his company his loyalty similarly as a medieval man owed to his liege lord. For example, suiciding over shaming a company by being a manager who oversaw (or overlooked) some major fraud or ethical issue is often in the news and though it is considered tragic and no-one says outright that it is the right thing to do, it also seems not to be frowned upon particularly. And, like liege lords, there are good companies and bad – some will simply work their people into the ground (until they are caught out) and some will treat them well.

The Japanese government watches over the companies and fines and (more importantly) shames them if their worker welfare slips so far as to be headline news but the government also seems to depend upon companies as a kind of social safety net, regulating company behavior to an extent that would have Australian companies up in arms. Companies here pay our equivalent of the medicare levy, for example, and recently it has been proposed (I’m not sure if it has passed yet) that companies be made responsible for the increasing obesity of their workers – for each worker over 45 who is over a certain waist measurement after a certain date, the company will have to pay more of that levy to handle the assumed extra cost in medical care that person may cost the state (though since arriving here I’ve been told that there is no public health system except for keeping prices at the many private hospitals/clinics down by decree – not subsidization, so I’m not sure where said money is actually going… so I am obviously missing a piece of the puzzle here.)  This example may not be as severe as it may seem to many Australians since obesity in Japan is very much a ‘salary man’s’ disease caused by too much time in the desk chair and too little time to eat healthily. Grabbing some curry and rice from the station curry stand when heading home on the very last train (if you haven’t missed it) is the best many can do. And this is the thing – the Japanese spend so much of their lives working and so much is expected of them by their companies that it does actually make sense that companies should be held at least partly responsible for their employees welfare beyond what is strictly the work environment. Of course that could equally apply to many Australian companies – particularly when it comes to excessive drinking of their employees at official and unofficial after work gatherings – but then we all know I’m a raging socialist so we can ignore that 😉

But what about the welfare of temp agency staff?

Temp agencies apparently took a while to catch on in Japan because employers weren’t sure they wanted someone who was not indoctrinated in the company ‘way’ to invade the compound, as it were. It has taken off now, though, and people are not happy with the way the temporary workers are being treated – the companies they temp for do not consider them their own but the temp agencies do not offer the kind of protection that permanent staff get at a regular company. Rather than asking the temp agencies to, say, only take on the number of employees they can regularly offer work and so can afford to take care of as other companies take care of their workers (something which was the norm in Australia within my own memory but is now long gone) some have wanted to ban temp agencies altogether and the following appeared in Japan Today, today.

Ruling bloc eyes banning daily-basis dispatch of temp workers

Thursday 03rd July, 04:52 AM JST

TOKYO —

A task force of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and its coalition partner New Komeito Party agreed Wednesday to seek basically banning temp staff agencies from dispatching temp workers on a daily basis, a practice criticized for spawning young working poor and widening Japan’s social disparities, lawmakers said.

As the task force put out its basic stance Wednesday in seeking amendments to the worker dispatch law, the two parties plan to formulate their recommendations on the matter, and based on them the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry is expected to submit a bill to revise the law to the Diet in an extra session convening around late August

Interesting solution. On the surface it looks like those who wanted to ban the agencies altogether have come to a compromise, maybe that’s the case or maybe they are cleverer than their opponents think. It is inevitable that workers will need individual days off at least for the odd flu or funeral. If companies cannot hire temps for the day, what will they do? Two solutions come immediately to mind – the second of which might just see less demand for temp agencies altogether and more permanent (even if part-time) work for people.

The first solution is the one which, frankly, many companies (at least in the West to my knowledge) already resort to instead of hiring temps: foist the work onto some other poor soul or souls who already have enough to do and then blame the poor sick or bereaved worker for not being there 🙁 . The second solution is for the company to ‘take the high road", if you will, and actually take responsibility for managing this inevitable, unavoidable situation by actually preparing for it. Afterall that’s what today’s leadership is supposed to be all about isn’t it? Human Resource Management? The skeletal staffing arrangements of western companies where they might hire one person to be admin assistant for 5 or 6 mid level executives seems to me a false economy especially when you take into account that over-work and over-stress actually causes the kind of illness which will have people needing days off or working at half-strength if they come in. If you do not order enough copy paper in advance for your requirements then you have managed your needs badly – similarly if you find yourself without enough staff then you have also managed your needs badly, no matter what the reason, because people are wet machines that need rest and become ill if they don’t get enough.

In the ‘olden days’ before employees became "human resources" and, admittedly, before word processors and photocopiers there were ‘secretarial pools’ from which people, ok lets face it women, could be transferred for the day or the week that someone was away. If there was notice, as in the case of planned leave, then there could even be a hand-over. Of course it meant that people in the typing pool had to handle the extra work and I wasn’t around then so I’m not sure how that was handled but I’m sure it was handled well in at least some companies.  Obviously there isn’t the amount of work that justifies a typing pool as such these days, but, it seems to me, with the huge cost of temp staff it wouldn’t hurt a company to have one or a few (depending on the size of company) extra ‘floating’ admin staff who are on permanent salary (even if it’s part time) to help out and be available to fill in where necessary. In fact I remember seeing adverts when I was first starting work for ‘admin floaters’ (and giggling stupidly because I was 14.)  Of course, this solution would lead to less demand for temp workers altogether and a decrease in temp agency revenue but it would mean more real jobs and maybe that’s what the anti-temp employment politicians have in mind – but it’s probably just a political compromise. It will be interesting to see what happens.