On February 1 the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare (MHLW) announced the results of its survey on total annual real working hours for 2011. The survey targeted 33,000 businesses with five or more workers.
Following the Great East Japan Earthquake in March 2011, the response rate in the disaster area declined, but still the per capita average number of total real working hours for the year was 1,747.2 hours, a drop of 7.2 hours from the preceding year. This figure represents a decline of 316.8 hours from 1990, when the survey began.
The survey results suggest that the Japanese, famous for their overwork, are now working less and that progress is being made toward the establishment of a work-life balance. When looked at from the perspective of work patterns, however, the reality of working hours tells a different story.
When the 2011 survey results are divided between full-time workers (including "part-time" workers who work the equivalent of full-time shifts) and part-time workers (short-time work), they show a large gap in working time, with full-time workers clocking in 2,005.2 hours and part-time workers 1,089.6 hours. In other words, full-time workers are not working much less than before.
Among others, the reasons for the decline in the average figure are (1) part-time workers work for fewer hours than full-time workers and (2) the number of part-time workers is on the rise.
The hourly wages of part-time workers are considerably less than those of full-time workers. Therefore, it can be said that Japanese workers are being forced to make a choice: Either they go full-time, getting a good wage but forsaking a work-life balance, or they go part-time, accepting a lower wage but getting more free time.
There are many people who choose to work part-time, accepting the lower wage in exchange for more free time. But there are also many people who cannot find regular full-time work (employment without a fixed term) and are forced unwillingly to follow the part-time path. Moreover, since part-time wages are not enough to live on, there are workers who have to take on two jobs in order to make ends meet.
In order to realize its target of 1,800 working hours a year for all workers, RENGO (Japanese Trade Union Confederation) has adopted a policy of endeavoring to reduce overtime work through the revision of labour agreements and proper management of working time. In addition, RENGO is studying the matter of including interval regulations to ensure time for rest, daily chores, and so on between the end of one shift and beginning of the next in labour agreements. (The European Union's Working Time Directive stipulates a minimum daily rest period of 11 hours.)
Seeking to improve the conditions of part-time workers, RENGO aims to realize equal and balanced treatment through legislation that, among other things, establishes the principle of the same wage for the same job in fixed-term employment contracts (many part-time workers have fixed-term contracts) and prohibits discriminative treatment without rational reason regardless of work pattern.