Archive for the ‘Economy’ Category

Who benefits from the new overtime pay system?

Monday, February 16th, 2015

On Feb. 13, a Labor Policy Council sub-committee submitted to the labor ministry a report with suggestions for a bill to revise the labor standards law. The revision, which the ministry plans to submit to the next regular Diet session, applies to the work of skilled white collar professionals and will allow them to “work in a manner that demonstrates their achievements” more effectively, which is another way of saying that employers will no longer be required to pay these workers overtime for extra hours on the job, which in turn means that employers cannot be accused of pressuring them to work overtime for no pay, a system popularly known as saabisu zangyo, or “free overtime.”

Ostensibly, the revision will affect a small portion of the labor force, since it will only apply to workers who make at least ¥10.75 million a year, mainly foreign currency traders, financial analysts, consultants, etc.

Burning the candle at both ends.

Burning the candle at both ends.

According to the advisory panel’s recommendations, if a company wants to utilize this new overtime system, it must reach an agreement with the targeted workers and somehow introduce rules that will guarantee the employees avoid overwork as much as possible by, for instance, making sure they don’t work weekends.

The panel also recommends another revision to so-called sairyo rodosei, the “discretionary labor system.” Under to this system the worker and his employer decide together how many hours the former will work and how much pay he will receive based on those hours. If the two parties believe that in order to accomplish his tasks he may occasionally need to work longer hours, then those hours and appropriate compensation should be incorporated beforehand into his wages. But if the worker works even more hours than the overtime covered by the extra wage, he will not be paid extra in accordance with the new system, though there may be special conditions for after-midnight and weekend work.

This system targets sales agents, researchers, legal workers — people who tend to require flexible hours since the size of their work load varies in accordance with the nature of a specific project. The whole point, according to the labor ministry, is to peg pay to achievement.

An report in Tokyo Shimbun points out that there is more to the proposed bill than the two revised overtime systems. The ostensible purpose of the revisions is to prevent “overwork,” so the sub-committee also recommends a law guaranteeing a minimum number of paid vacation days a year, even for management employees; and that overtime rates be increased for employees of small and medium-sized companies to those already being paid by large companies.

With regards to workers on flextime systems, overtime should be paid for any hours that exceed 50 in a week, and employees with small children should be better able to set their hours in order to address parenting contingencies.

These changes sound progressive, but representatives of labor groups who participated in the sub-committee discussions expressed serious reservations about their direction, saying they may actually have the opposite effect and lead to overwork. They may even exacerbate karoshi (death from overwork), something the revisions are supposed to prevent.

To the labor side, the current system of stipulating a normal workload as being five days a week, eight hours a day, with any extra hours worked as qualifying for overtime pay, should remain unchanged. The problem is that it isn’t enforced strictly enough. By deregulating the current law, there is a danger that workers will be pressured even more into working longer hours.

The government has countered by saying that cutting the relationship between wages and work hours will lead to greater economic activity and should even mean shorter work hours. The management representatives on the sub-committee added that a “broader choice of working styles” will mean greater productivity and thus more sustainable economic growth.

The main problem is that there is no definition of what qualifies as “achievement.” For sales agents, it may not be a problem since they have sales targets, but what about researchers? For the time being, the new changes will only affect about 100,000 workers, but in 2005 the Japan Business Federation (Keidanren) said they wanted this kind of “zero-overtime” system for all workers who make over ¥4 million, which is about 40 percent of the white collar workforce.

They’ve since reduced it to 10 percent of the workforce, but obviously they aim to increase that portion. And as one labor lawyer interviewed by Tokyo Shimbun explained, the discretionary labor system already in effect has led to longer hours, so a revised system may simply make matters worse.

But the real issue is how these revisions affect wages. According to a study by Mitsubishi UFJ Research (pdf), the average “fixed wage” (shotei-nai kyuryo) has remained the same since 1995, mostly due to changes in the makeup of the labor force, which now includes more part-time and regular workers than there were 20 years ago. That means any increase in pay for the average worker comes from bonuses (tokubetsu kyuryo) or overtime pay (shoteigai kyuryo).

As the English nomenclature suggests, bonuses are paid at the discretion of the employer, usually as a reflection of either the company’s business achievements or the individual worker’s. However, in Japan, employees consider bonuses to be part of their salary, as do consumer markets. Banks take bonuses into consideration when extending loans. Mitsubishi found that in 1995, bonuses accounted for 22.9 percent of the average pay of workers who received them, and that now bonuses make up only 18.5 percent of their yearly pay. Since salaries have remained flat during that interval, it means overall pay has actually decreased.

The only way a worker can make more money over time is thus to work extra hours. Mitsubishi found that overtime pay increased steadily through the mid-2000s as the Japanese economy grew, and then dropped suddenly with the onset of the recession in 2008. In recent years, as the economy improved, overtime pay has increased.

That means overtime pay is a better index of economic achievement than salaries or even bonuses, but it doesn’t mean workers are benefiting from better corporate performance, since they are contributing to it with more time spent on the job. When Mitsubishi evaluated industries that tend to demonstrate low productivity, it found that workers also tend to work longer hours, which is particularly conspicuous for young workers, who may need more time to finish projects, and higher-income workers, whose higher incomes are a direct function of working more overtime.

According to Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development statistics, in the United States, which leads the world in per person hours worked with 1,790 a year, part-timers, who are defined as working less than 35 hours a week, make up 13 percent of the labor force, while in Japan, which is second with 1,745 hours a year per person, part-timers make up more than 20 percent of the labor force. That means full-time employees are working more hours than their American counterparts, and Mitsubishi reports that the average number of hours worked by full-time regular employees in 2013 was 2,022.

Though companies have demanded the zero overtime revision in order to increase productivity, their main goal is to reduce personnel costs. If that’s the case, then the revision flies in the face of the government economic recovery strategy, which is to boost corporate profits that will in turn boost wages and consumption. If overtime is cut, then workers lose the only recourse they have — at the moment, at least — for wage growth. Moreover, in order to fulfill work loads that will be used to judge performance they may have to work more hours without pay.

Who benefits in the end?

Where’s the milk? School lunches no longer sacred cows

Monday, January 26th, 2015

Screen shot of February lunch menus for an elementary school in Gifu Prefecture

The February lunch menu for an elementary school in Gifu Prefecture

Last Saturday was the start of Gakko Kyushoku Shukan (School Lunch Week), an annual celebration of the meals that public elementary and junior high school students in Japan enjoy every day by force of law.

School lunches have been a point of pride for Japan’s education institutions, a means of integrating lifelong health maintenance into the standard curriculum. On another level, mandatory school lunches, as the late writer Kuniko Mukoda once famously pointed out, was the basis for the widespread idea that all Japanese belonged to the “middle class.”

Several years ago, the government said it wanted to reinforce “food education,” though it hardly seems necessary since the school lunch program already does that, and very effectively. According to law, all public school children below high school must buy lunch, and those who cannot afford it receive subsidies from the authorities. Each school will have its own nutritionist to make sure the children receive properly balanced meals. In terms of cost, the ingredients for the meals will be paid for by the students, meaning their parents, while labor, maintenance and other related expenses are taken care of by local governments with help from the central government.

This latter element has lately been challenged as more local governments look for ways to cut their budgets. Last summer, Sanjo, a city in Niigata Prefecture, “experimentally” stopped serving milk with lunches at 30 public schools. The ostensible reason, according to the mayor, was that parents complained that milk doesn’t fit in with the Japanese cuisine the schools served.

CONTINUE READING about school lunches →

Attitudes about money continue to affect marriage prospects

Monday, December 1st, 2014

Head first: Newly married couple having their picture taken at a park in Makuhari

Head first: Newly married couple having their picture taken at a park in Makuhari

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has characterized the upcoming general election as a referendum for his fiscal policies, popularly known as “Abenomics,” so it’s not surprising that the opposition has focused on those policies as a means of discrediting his administration.

The Democratic Party of Japan’s chief cabinet secretary, Yukio Edano, recently gave a public speech from a sound truck in Yamagata City, and talked mainly about the effect that Abenomics has had on employment. Abe brags about creating new jobs with his policy, but Edano contends that these jobs are not the kind that allow young people to “get married and start families,” since they are mostly temporary or contract work (haken) that doesn’t guarantee a stable future. “At the very least, we have to increase the number of jobs that guarantee stability, otherwise we can’t call it an employment policy,” he said.

Edano has a point, though he may not realize how sharp it actually is. Last year, the marriage information company O-Net, which is part of the Rakuten Group, conducted a survey of single men and women in the Tokyo metropolitan area between the ages of 25 and 39 to find out their prospects for marriage. When asked why they were not married, the most common answer (multiple responses were allowed) for both genders was that they “don’t have a chance to meet people of the opposite sex.”

CONTINUE READING about marriage proposal criteria

The case for a higher consumption tax

Tuesday, November 4th, 2014

Big needs: Should daily necessities by exempt from the consumption tax?

Big needs: Should daily necessities by exempt from the consumption tax?

Right now the government is fretting over whether or not to raise the consumption tax to its planned level of 10 percent in October of next year. For a while it seemed like a sure thing, but the drop in demand that accompanied the most recent hike to 8 percent in April, coupled with less inflation than the administration and the Bank of Japan had hoped for, has put the plan into doubt. The fear is that another boost in the tax will send the economy into a recessionary tailspin.

Akira Sugawara, a high school teacher who has published an economics primer for businessmen, recently wrote a simple, easy-to-understand polemic in favor of raising the tax for the online version of the business magazine Toyo Keizai. In line with his mission to explain economic principles to people who don’t have a strong grasp of basics, Sugawara starts out by explaining what the consumption tax is supposed to do, rather than what it is actually doing.

Originally, the purpose of the tax was to bolster social security in the face of a rapidly aging society, and though so far revenues from the tax have been used to pay off Japan’s massive debt, Sugawara still thinks social security should be prioritized when discussing the consumption tax.

CONTINUE READING about higher consumption tax →

When protecting farmers hurts consumers — and farmers

Monday, October 27th, 2014

Sign in dairy case telling shoppers they are limited to only one package of butter per person

Sign in dairy case telling shoppers they are limited to only one package of butter per person

Butter isn’t as essential in Japanese cuisine as it is in certain other countries’ national styles of cooking, but it does have its place, most commonly in white sauces and baking, and anyone here who uses it regularly has had to pay premium prices for it. Lately, they’ve been paying even more.

In a recent Asahi Shimbun feature a housewife shopping in Minato Ward, Tokyo, is tempted to pick up a package of “luxury brand” butter because all the regular butter is sold out, but in the end she leaves the store without it because she just can’t see spending that much money. The article doesn’t say what that price is, but regular butter right now is said to cost “¥400 or more” for 200 grams, and the luxury butter is “twice as expensive.”

The implication is that ¥400 is already too much to pay, but in any case wherever you go, regular butter tends to be sold out, and many supermarkets now limit customers to only one package per trip. More significantly, businesses such as ramen restaurants and bakeries, which rely on butter as an essential ingredient, are also suffering from the price increase. That’s because there is an acute butter shortage.

And the reason there’s a butter shortage is that there’s a milk shortage and butter is the least prioritized of dairy products. Most milk that’s produced in Japan is sold as milk, and only when there is milk left over after being channeled into by-products like cheese and yogurt does butter get made. Unlike most other dairy products, butter can be frozen and stored for a long period of time.

CONTINUE READING about Japan's butter shortage →

Rice is nice when the price is right

Wednesday, October 1st, 2014

Early birds: Harvesting rice crop in northern Chiba prefecture in September

Early birds: Harvesting rice crop in northern Chiba Prefecture in September

The main rallying cry of those opposed to the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotations, such as JA (National Federation of Agricultural Cooperative Associations), is that Japan can no long feed itself with the food it produces, since its self-sufficiency rate is a meager 39 percent. But as attorney Colin P.A. Jones recently pointed out in his Japan Times “Law of the Land” column, this figure is misleading since it measures food consumed in calories.

In terms of production, Japan’s self-sufficiency rate is 65 percent. Moreover, in terms of total volume of food produced, Japan is fifth in the world. The point is, Japan produces plenty of food for itself, and it also imports lots of food. It is a wealthy country by any measure. However, its agricultural sector is lopsided in that it doesn’t produce food in a way that matches demand.

Rice is the culprit. Even without American threatening their livelihood with shiploads at the ready of cheap short-grained rice, farmers in Japan are already seeing prices drop precipitously. There is just too much rice being produced, despite the fact that the government still pays farmers not to produce so much.

According to Tokyo Shimbun the problem started in 2011 after the Great East Japan Earthquake destroyed much of the crop in the Tohoku region, a major rice-producing region. Consequently, rice stocks became low and the price skyrocketed. This situation lasted through the 2012 harvest. As a result, restaurants and prepared food makers cut back on the amount of rice they used. But by the middle of 2013, stocks of rice had increased to the point of a surplus, and a bumper crop was produced in the fall. But demand didn’t follow suit and the surplus grew considerably. Again, the situation remained unchanged and the price has been dropping steadily since then to the point where it’s lower than it was before the earthquake.

CONTINUE READING about domestic vs. foreign rice →

Casino tax study exposes pachinko to greater scrutiny

Monday, September 8th, 2014

Where's the money? Pachinko patrons at an off-site exchange booth

Where’s the money? Pachinko patrons at an off-site exchange booth

In line with plans to make casino gambling legal in Japan, the government needs to come up with some sort of scheme to tax gambling receipts, but even before they do that they have to address another problematic potential revenue source: pachinko. As it stands, pachinko winnings are not taxed and pro-casino forces are thinking of implementing a 1 percent levy on those winnings, so they went to the National Police Agency and asked for figures to see what kind of tax revenues they could expect. An NPA representative told them, seemingly with a straight face, that they don’t keep such statistics since there are no winnings.

Classic pachinko is like pinball in that the player earns points by being able to send balls into certain holes, which gives him more balls to play with. In gambling terms, a player wins when he ends up with more balls than what he started with. However, pachinko parlors cannot reimburse the player for the balls he wins. Instead they give him tokushu keihin (special premiums) — ball point pens, lighter flints, etc. — in exchange for balls. Then, he can take those premiums to an off-site, unaffiliated shop that buys them with cash. The shop then sells the premiums back to a wholesaler, which, in turn, redistributes tham back to pachinko parlors.

This “three-shop exchange system” (santen kokan hoshiki) bypasses anti-gambling laws because the venue where the customer plays the game does not offer cash rewards. Everyone understands this system and how it works, but the police representative told the group of lawmakers that they don’t have figures because “we don’t know anything about places” where pachinko players exchange prizes for money.

According to the Asahi Shimbun, the lawmakers were “disgusted” with this ingenuous display of “tatemae” (official principle). The group, established last February, believes a 1 percent tax on pachinko winnings would generate ¥200 billion a year in revenues for the government, which is important since the present administration has decided to reduce the amount of corporate tax it collects and has to make up the shortfall somehow. Consequently, according to the Asahi, these lawmakers have to “destroy” the illusion that people don’t exchange pachinko balls for cash, which means they have to publicize the three-shop system and explain it for what it is, which is gambling by indirection.

The system was devised in Osaka in the 1960s. At the time, players exchanged the premiums they won for cash directly from organized crime members. Later, the police forced underworld elements out of the business and entrusted the exchange system to local chapters of the Japan War-Bereaved Families Association, which consists of people who lost heads-of-household and other loved ones on the front lines in World War II.

It was a form of public welfare, and at this point the NPA acknowledged, albeit tacitly, that pachinko exchanges weren’t strictly illegal any more. Eventually, they set up their own bureaucratic organization, the Pachinko Gyokai Dantai (Pachinko Industry Group), and staffed it with retired NPA officials to administer the exchange system. Some media have said that profits from the system go into the police pension fund and other NPA-related schemes. In any case, the police have never allowed anyone outside this organization to have anything to do with the system.

CONTINUE READING about gambling in Japan →

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