Labor Market Reform and Work Precarity in Japan

Dr. Hiroaki Watanabe

This article will address the question of how and why work precarity has increased in Japan since the 1990s from a comparative perspective. The article will examine the characteristics of the labor market policy and reform that contributed to the dualization of the Japanese labor market from the theoretical perspective of the power resources and preferences of labor unions. Japanese ‘enterprise’ unions, which are mainstream unions in Japan, have lost their power resources to a significant extent due to the labor market reform, which increased the percentage of non-regular workers, and the changes in the labor policymaking process. However, enterprise unions also prioritized the maintenance of regular workers’ jobs at the cost of non-regular workers’. In this sense, taking consideration of the preferences of enterprise unions is essential to understanding the dualization of the labor market in Japan. Individual-affiliated unions, which any individual workers can join irrespective of their company affiliation, have been enthusiastic about rectifying the labor market dualism between regular and non-regular employment. However, they have lacked the power resources to do so.
Labor market regulation and reform contributed to the increase in work precarity in several ways. In the case of the deregulation of non-regular employment, it increased the number of workers whose working conditions were poor and precarious. In the case of the Equal Employment Opportunity Law and its amendments, they contributed to gender segregation in the Japanese labor market despite their de-jure regulation due to their weak power to implement gender-equal policy and insufficient penalty against the violation of the law. Japanese female workers have been induced to take precarious jobs such as part-time work and temporary agency work in unequal ways. This article conducts a brief comparative analysis of the labor market reform in South Korea, Italy and Spain. These East Asian and Southern European countries share several similar labor market and social welfare characteristics with Japan, and a comparative analysis of these countries could be useful for identifying explanatory factors that have contributed to the increase in and particular characteristics of work precarity in Japan.