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"Present Situation and Issues of Japan's Distribution and Retail Industry in the Global Society"

On February 18, 2015, JILAF held an international symposium in Tokyo titled "Expansion of the Global Economy: Attractions and Issues of Japan's Retail Industry." The keynote speech at the symposium was delivered by Professor Kazunari Honda of the Faculty of Economics of Kokugakuin University, who spoke about the "Present Situation and Issues of Japan's Distribution and Retail Industry in the Global Society." The following is a summary of his speech.

Present Situation of Housewife Part-Time Workers and Their Mainstreaming

As in other countries, there is an extremely high ratio of part-time workers in Japan's retail industry. According to a labour force survey conducted by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, the number of part-time workers in Japan in 2013 was 13.20 million people, accounting for 25.4% of the total workforce. Of them, the number of part-time workers in the wholesale and retail industry was 3.60 million people, accounting for 40.6% of the workforce in that industry.

Regarding trends in the number of female part-time workers and the number of female regular employees in the wholesale and retail industry and eating and drinking establishments, in 1982 there were 2.12 million female regular employees and 1.466 million female part-time workers. These figures were pretty much the same in 1987, at 2.10 million for the former and 2.155 million for the latter. By 2012, however, the number of female regular employees had dropped to 1.486 million people and the number of female part-time workers had zoomed to 3.98 million people. The characteristic of part-time workers in Japan is the extremely large number of married women among them. And the difference with other countries is that these so-called housewife part-time workers have become a mainstream workforce. (Note 1)

(JILAF Note 1)
According to a basic statistical wage survey conducted by the Ministry of Health, Labour, and Welfare, in 2012 female part-time workers in the wholesale and retail industry had an average age of 44.8 years, average working hours of 5.2 hours a day, average working days of 18.2 days a month, and an average hourly wage of 940 yen. The same survey calculated the average wage of female regular employees (excluding bonuses) to be the equivalent of 1,440 yen an hour.

There are two types of work, primary and secondary, and the work of housewife part-timers in Japan is shifting from secondary to primary jobs. In other words, part-time workers are becoming the mainstream. In the fresh meat sector, for example, the tasks of skinning meat, removing the muscle, and slicing used to be done entirely by regular employees, but now they are performed by part-time workers. To put it another way, businesses would not be able to function without their part-time workers.

Since companies can lap up juicy profits by mainstreaming part-time workers and keeping their wages low, this has become a desirable business model. Table 1 shows the difference in treatment of regular employees and part-time workers. The retail industry has been perfecting this mainstreaming of part-time work little by little over the last four decades or so. And during this period, companies have been raking in profits generated by the difference between the mainstreaming of part-time work and their treatment of part-time workers. This is something that trade unions would do well to remember.

Figure 1: Treatment of Part-Time Workers Doing the Same Jobs as Regular Employees
  100% of regular employee level 99%-80% 79%-60% 59%-40% 40% or less None
Basic wage level 5 21 35 32 7 -
Bonus level 0 0 3 7 37 52
Source: Aichi Prefecture Employers' Association, Report on Fact-finding Survey Relating to Diverse Utilization of Human Resources, 2014

Housewife part-time workers do the same jobs as regular employees and are increasingly becoming the mainstream, but their wages levels remain quite low, usually accounting for around 40% or 50% of those of regular employees. This gap is the cause of much discontent. What makes these low wages of housewife part-time workers possible is the traditional system of paying main salaries to male regular employees. The male regular employee is the main breadwinner in the household, so he is paid an appropriate wage. That is the meaning of the main salary system. These days, however, the wages of male regular employees are on a downward trend, and increasingly they face uncertain conditions, including the loss of their jobs. Since the wages of male regular employees have become unstable, the traditional structure is beginning to shake.

Luckily for companies, however, the traditional view of gender roles is deeply entrenched in Japan. The man works outside, and the woman stays at home and does the housework. Sometimes the woman may have a part-time job, but only to supplement the income of the breadwinning husband. This traditional view of gender roles is backed by Japan's social security system (pensions, health insurance), by which the wife is a dependent of her husband and can receive the benefits of social insurance without having to pay social insurance premiums. If the wife earns above a certain amount, she can no longer claim dependency on her husband. So even if she does want to earn more, there is a limit. That is why she is willing to continue working for a low wage forever. So even if the mainstreaming of part-time work advances, this continued existence of a setup in which conditions for women are poor and a system that encourages women to work for low wages has repercussions for other nonregular workers as well. The unmarried rate and divorce rate are rising in Japan, though, so there is a possibility that this setup as a whole is going to be shaken to the core.

Another reason for the mainstreaming of part-time work is that part-time workers are generally enthusiastic, conscientious, and hard-working. This is another factor facilitating a business model that generates profits from the difference between the mainstreaming and treatment of part-time workers.

(JILAF Note 2)
According to a 2011 survey conducted by the Ministry of Health, Labour, and Welfare, the employment rate for single mother households was 80.6%, of whom 39.4% were regular employees and 47.4% were engaged in part-time or other nonregular work.

Role of Trade Unions

A nonregular employee works alongside a regular employee, but the nonregular employee receives less than half of the wages of the regular employee. However hard the nonregular employee tries, nothing changes. Eventually the nonregular employee begins to lower his own estimation of himself or herself and lose his or her self-esteem. This goes way beyond the issue of poverty. It is a problem of human rights. Trade unions must understand that there are many people in this predicament and campaign accordingly. Trade unions must not only make efforts to raise the minimum wage and other working conditions but also think more about individual feelings.

The foundation for the protection of workers is collective industrial relations. Trade unions must engage properly in negotiations, conclude agreements, and ensure good wages. They must resolutely fight against the argument that unions are unnecessary in a market economy. It is only unions that can cover the weaknesses of the market economy. And while thinking about how to campaign, it is also necessary to promote unionization so as to increase the number of comrades. Through collective industrial relations, I want you to face the market economy head-on and take action to make up for its weaknesses.

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