Archive for the ‘Economy’ Category

Use it or lose it: Workers want companies to pay for paid vacations

Monday, January 20th, 2014

No rest for the weary

No rest for the weary

Last fall, the labor ministry inspected 5,111 companies they suspected might be burakku kigyo, or “black companies,” meaning enterprises that violate labor standards, usually with regard to working hours. The ministry found that more than 80 percent were, in fact, guilty of some kind of misdemeanor in their treatment of employees, with 44 percent violating overtime rules and 24 percent not paying extra wages for overtime work at all. All the major media reported the investigation but, as is always the case with such revelations, no companies were identified.

Tokyo Shimbun, however, did interpolate the findings in an interesting way by offering a useful tip to young job-seekers: A good criterion for determining whether or not a company treated its employees fairly was the way it handled paid vacations. As it stands, Japan, among all the major industrial economies in the world, has the lowest rate of workers taking paid vacations — on average only 47 percent of full-time regular employees.

In France, Germany and the U.K., almost 100 percent of full-time workers take paid leave, probably because it is legally mandated. In the U.S., where there is no law guaranteeing paid vacations, the rate is between 70 and 80 percent. The usual reason for Japan’s low showing in this regard is the structure of the workplace, where employees are expected to take full responsibility for their positions, meaning that when they take time off they have to ask other employees to cover their tasks, thus giving those employees extra work.

This can cause bad feelings among co-workers, which is why in Japan everybody takes vacations at the same time. In other countries, tasks tend to be shared within departments or sections, so if one person takes off his job can be covered by several people.

Nevertheless, Japan does have rules governing vacation time. After six months on the job, a new employee, whether full-time or part-time, must be allowed 10 days of paid vacation if he or she has worked at least 80 percent of all his employer’s business days during those six months. Then, for every subsequent year the employee remains at the company, he or she gains one extra paid day off. The labor ministry survey found that the average white collar worker takes 8.6 days of paid leave a year. In addition, a survey by Rengo, the Japan Trade Union Federation, found that 23 percent of workers took no vacation at all, while another 24 percent took up to only 2 days.

According to an article published last November by the weekly magazine Shukan Post, with pressure mounting from the government to increase salaries in line with the Liberal Democratic Party’s economic recovery plan, some companies are looking at paid vacations as a means of meeting these goals, by paying employees extra for the time they don’t take off.

At present, this is against the law. In 1955, the practice of “buying” paid vacations was outlawed because, according to a professor interviewed by Post, Japan was just entering its high-growth period and there were labor shortages, so businesses could afford to buy workers’ vacations since consumer demand was so high. The government realized that workers could easily be exploited.

The Post suggests the government legally allow companies to buy vacation time since workers themselves have said they are willing to sell such time if they receive “the proper compensation.” Companies now can legally compensate for unused vacation time when an employee quits or retires, so changing the law wouldn’t be that difficult.

In any event, the magazine reports that many companies already buy vacation time under the table, though they often pay only the equivalent of the minimum wage. The magazine figures that since a 45-year-old university graduate makes on average ¥18,500 a day, he could demand ¥185,000 extra for not taking his mandatory 10-day vacation. That extra money would add about ¥15,000 more to his monthly pay, which by itself isn’t going to boost his pay enough to provide the stimulus the government wants, but it’s something.

Deflation Watch: New Year’s scorecard

Sunday, January 12th, 2014

Bottomless: Bargain bulk sale on diapers at discount store

Bottomless: Bargain bulk sale on diapers at discount store

In a chat with Nobel Prize-winning economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, the weekly magazine Aera asked him about the prospects of “Abenomics,” which Krugman has supported. He still supports it, but thinks that the consumption tax hike to 8 percent next April was a “bad decision” that may ruin all the good things that Abenomics could achieve. He recommends that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe either cancel the increase or postpone it.

It’s probably too late for that, which explains Abe’s recent desperate attempts to get Japan’s businesses to promise to boost salaries, none of which seem to be working. In a recent Kyodo News survey of 104 “key” companies, only 17 percent say they plan to increase pay in 2014, but none will carry out basic salary increases across the board, what’s known in Japanese business parlance as “base up.” The feeling is that they’ll increase wages for some workers, maybe through bigger bonuses, but such schemes don’t instill confidence in workers, and unless workers think they will be paid more in the future than they are now, they aren’t going to spend as freely, behavior that’s central to the success of Abenomics.

In the Kyodo survey 71 percent of businesses polled believe they will see growth in 2014, but if that growth isn’t translated into higher salaries, the game is off. Moreover, the good performance of the economy in 2013 was misleading. As web magazine Diamond Online points out, it was a minority of well-to-do Japanese who benefited from the stock market boom in the past year. Also, because people have anticipated the consumption tax hike next year, they rushed to buy houses. These two factors boost numbers, at least temporarily, but they don’t solve the underlying problem of deflation and lack of consumer sentiment in the population at large.

Much was made of the big profits enjoyed by large companies this year, but they represent a fairly small portion of the Japanese business community, only 0.3 percent of all registered companies. They made money through exports, meaning they benefited from the higher dollar. That’s all. Diamond says that 70 percent of the Japanese workforce is employed by small or medium-sized companies, who depend mainly on domestic consumption.

Diamond surveyed 200 workers about their winter bonuses. Seventy-eight said they received no bonus at all, while 98 said their bonus was less than ¥500,000. Only 38 replied that their bonus was larger than last year’s, while 40 said it was less. The remainder said there was no change. This contrasts greatly with the widely reported news that the average winter bonus of an employee of a large company was ¥806,000.

More significantly, when Diamond asked the people who did receive a bonus what they used it for, 61 percent said it went into their savings, while 24 percent said it would go for “necessary expenses” and 19 percent used it to help pay off loans. In other words, only 6 percent, at most, bought something with it.

The Mizuho Research Institute found that the average household, which earns ¥4 million-¥5 million a year, will spend ¥78,869 more in taxes in 2014 thanks to the consumption tax increase. The Cocomane website, which helps consumers save money with tips on reducing expenditures, did its own survey of 1,127 people, 80 percent of whom said they “economize” on a regular basis. Why are they always looking to save money? The number one reason is to “prepare” for future expenditures. The second most common reason was “loss of income,” and the third reason “not enough money saved.” As to the question “How do you save money?” the most frequent answer was the simplest: Just try not to spend it, followed by “not eating out” and “cutting back on utilities.”

But the most interesting responses were in relation to the consumption tax hike. Fifty-four percent of respondents said they have not made nor do they intend to make any “big purchases” before the increase goes into effect, and 62 percent of the people who are making big purchases say it has nothing to do with the increase. Essentially, most consumers either aren’t changing their already careful consumption habits in face of the tax increase, or they will try to spend less. Almost no one expects to spend more.

Part-timers skewing employment statistics

Thursday, January 2nd, 2014

Take this job and...: Want ads targeting part-timers for specific shifts at a Chiba Prefecture supermarket

Take this job and…: Want ads targeting part-timers for specific shifts at a Chiba Prefecture supermarket

When the government determines the success of Abenomics it has to take into consideration wage inflation, not just price inflation, since real growth can’t be sustained without both. Nevertheless, all wage inflation isn’t created equal.

A recent article in the Asahi Shimbun cited results of a regular survey conducted by Recruit Jobs, an employment-related research institute. In the major metropolitan areas of Japan the average wage offered to part-time food service workers in want ads in November was ¥930, which is 1.3 percent higher than the average amount offered in November 2012. More significantly, this year-on-year increase has been continuing for 25 consecutive months, the longest stretch of increases since the institute started tracking such numbers in 2007.

The standard wage in the restaurant industry is relatively low to begin with, and right now there is a shortage of help nationwide, so Recruit says employers are being forced to offer more money. One example cited by Asahi is a new mall that just opened in Makuhari, Chiba Prefecture, which contains a number of eating establishments, most of which belong to chain operations. Starting wages at these restaurants is between ¥1,200 and ¥1,300 an hour, which is even higher than they are in Tokyo. According to an official at Four Seeds, a company that owns several restaurant chains, more large retail facilities, such as shopping malls, are being built in an around major metropolitan areas, so there is greater demand for food service workers.

However, these numbers are misleading in terms of indicating whether or not the economy as a whole is on the mend. For one thing, the labor ministry says that just because part-time wages in major cities are going up, it doesn’t mean they’re rising for the rest of Japan.

The ministry found that in October, the average monthly take-home for “short-hour part-timers” was ¥94,634, which is 0.4 percent lower than it was in October 2012, and marked five straight months of year-on-year declines. And if the average pay for a part-timer in this industry in 2010 was set at 100, then the salary this year is 98.7.

Despite the fact that the national minimum wage was raised recently, average part-time income is dropping, mainly because companies are hiring more people to work short hours. For instance, the coffee shop chain Pronto targets housewives (which they call “mistresses”) in their 30s and 40s with the promise that they don’t have to work weekends and holidays. In addition, they can take off up to nine full weeks, without pay, of course, in a given six-month period. These women don’t work more than 20 hours a week, and the company likes it because under these conditions they can easily find women willing to work for low pay at short notice.

This trend is also prevalent in the supermarket industry, where employers pay housewives slightly more to work in the morning and the evenings since most housewives prefer only working in the afternoon when they don’t have household responsibilities.

In Tokyo, many food service companies offer higher wages only for peak demand periods to fill short-term staffing shortages. Other times they offer less money. The turnover is high, but this strategy allows the companies more options in controlling personnel costs on a month-to-month basis.

The point is that these workers supposedly want to work shorter hours, and the more people there are working shorter hours for slightly more pay, the more the statistics will reflect higher wages overall, but in truth the pay is just being distributed among more people, meaning per capita wages aren’t going up at all.

Of course, food services is traditionally considered an entry-level or temporary job, not a career track job, but as manufacturing continues to shift overseas, it is an industry that will become more vital as an employer. It’s not quite at the stage that it is in the U.S., where many fast food workers have to support families on what they make, but it might be getting there.

McDonald’s smells the coffee: Limited expectations are here to stay

Friday, December 27th, 2013

Fill 'er up: Customer using self-service coffee maker at 7-11.

Fill ‘er up: Customer using self-service coffee maker at 7-11.

If the central point of Abenomics is to boost prices and thus wages and consumption — the old “raise all boats” metaphor — then to a certain extent the plan has succeeded over the last year. Consumers don’t seem to be fixated on cheap goods and services any more, though, to be honest, it’s difficult to tell if this willingness to spend more is a function of anticipation for April’s consumption tax hike. But for the time being there seems to be that old desire for high quality stuff, regardless of how much it costs; which isn’t to say consumers aren’t looking for cheap things, only that they aren’t making it a priority any more.

This paradox seems to have had a bad effect on the fortunes of a company that some once thought was invincible: McDonald’s. Since August, the fast food behemoth’s Japanese operation has had to lower its sales projection for fiscal 2013 twice. Profits are expected to be around ¥5 billion, or a whopping ¥6.7 billion lower than originally thought. Sales have decreased five months in row, with the number of customers dropping for 7 consecutive months. The company is telling the media that the reason is “no hit product” this year, thus making it sound like a PR failure, but according to Asahi Shimbun, and almost every other Japanese media that has reported the story, McDonalds’ poor showing seems to be more systemic, an indication of a sea change in consumer sentiment.

The company’s response has been to bring in new blood. Sarah Casanova, a Canadian, was appointed president of McDonald’s Japan last summer, and, again, it seems to be more a matter of an image makeover. The announced new strategy is to target women as a demographic, since it is younger females who have tended to resist McD’s charms the most during its two straight years of falling revenues. The plan reinforces “healthy menu” items, which to a company like McDonald’s means offering more things with chicken in them.

Though it doesn’t sound like much, it’s actually quite a turnaround. When the previous president, Eiko Harada, was appointed in 2004 his big move was pushing the so-called ¥100 Mac, the cheap hamburger that was always going to be McDonald’s mainstay, and it worked. For the next six years profits grew.

The next big coup was ¥100 coffee, which effectively challenged coffee shops and coffee chains like Starbucks. Then the company made over their restaurants with more attractive decor. These various gambits were predicated on boosting the brand, but actually it was the price and the speed of service that mattered to customers. People buy McDonald’s hamburgers not because of the taste or the atmosphere, but because they’re cheap, and the same went for the coffee, which was pretty good considering but not as good as Starbucks, for what it’s worth.

To make matters worse, McDonald’s raised prices in the past year, thinking that the economy justified the change, and in a way it did, but people don’t think that way about McDonald’s. They aren’t willing to pay more for fast food, no matter how well it’s presented or how nice the decor is.

In the era of Abenomics, that means any competition can eat into McDonald’s sales more easily. Just as McD stole customers away from Starbucks when it launched its ¥100 coffee, now convenience stores are taking business away from McD with their own cheap coffee. About a year ago 7-11 put self-service coffee machines, which grind beans and brew coffee while you wait, in 16,000 stores, and by September they had sold 200 million cups. It only costs ¥100, and other CS have followed suit, though Lawson’s coffee is a bit more expensive at ¥150.

The market has grown so much that the consumer report magazine Nikkei Trendy named convenience store coffee the #1 hitto shohin (hit merchandise) of the year. It should be noted that Japan is a formidable coffee market, number 4 in the world in terms of consumption — 50 percent more than green tea, in fact. Even sushi restaurants are now serving fresh coffee. More significantly, 7-11 reports that its new coffee service does not subtract from other in-store coffee-related sales, such as canned coffee or chilled pack coffees. It’s simply gravy.

But someone has to lose in this equation, and it seems to be McDonald’s, which has a lot to lose. After all, ¥260 billion, which is McD’s projected revenue this year, is still a great deal of money. The problem is that McD is associated with hamburgers, whose traction on the Japanese imagination has always been tentative. Older people don’t really eat them as much, and Japan, as everyone knows, is the fastest aging society in the world.

Also, the tendency to eat out is becoming weaker in Japan as the population ages. Restaurant sales have decreased by 20 percent since they peaked in 1997. The weekly magazine Gendai, in typical hyperbolic fashion, has predicted the end of McDonald’s in Japan after reporting that the company will have closed 160 outlets by the end of this fiscal year.

Young women’s life preferences acknowledge workplace reality

Friday, September 27th, 2013

Preference or default?

Preference or default?

Social media has been buzzing about the results of a survey released this week by the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare. The survey was carried out last March among men and women, both single and married, between the ages of 15 and 39. The results that provoked the most discussion had to do with attitudes toward marriage, or, more precisely, a woman’s role in a marriage.

When asked if they want to be full-time homemakers, 34.2 percent of the female respondents said “yes” or “probably.” And while more women, 38.5 percent to be exact, said they didn’t want to be homemakers, the portion who said they did was apparently higher than people expected, especially now that the government is pushing an agenda to make it easier for women to join the workforce and contribute more directly to the economy.

Some people are saying that these results indicate a regressive attitude among women, but it’s impossible to say from the results that the women who want to be homemakers are being guided by some kind of cultural gender identification.

When men were asked in the survey if they wanted their wives to be homemakers, 19.3 percent said “yes” or “probably,” which implies that the other four-fifths want their wives to work. That’s because they know that a single income isn’t enough any more to support a household, especially one that does or will someday include children.

When the women were asked how much income they thought their husbands should make a month, 40.8 percent said ¥200,000-¥300,000, 24.8 percent said ¥300,000-¥400,000 and a mere 4.2 percent said “it doesn’t matter.” So much for marrying for love.

A more likely reason for this desire to stay at home is a perceived understanding of workplace norms, something the labor ministry didn’t ask about. In a different survey conducted by the Japan Management Association, young men (751) and women (249) already in the workforce were asked if they aspired to be leaders among their colleagues. Of the female respondents, 81 percent said they would rather be “supportive.”

One of the more pressing issues in Japan is the paucity of women managers, a situation that is blamed on implacable male dominance in the workplace. The association analyzes this result as meaning that women value their private lives over their careers. In other words, they don’t think they can raise children or have families if they are in leadership positions. And, in fact, this is still a widely held belief.

Aging boomers may prove to be just as tight with savings

Tuesday, September 17th, 2013

Praying is free (but the incense will cost you)

Praying is free (but the incense will cost you)

The media has been all over the new figures related to seniors that were released by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications to coincide with Respect for the Aged Day. To recap, the number of Japanese people over 65 increased by 1.12 million from the previous year, which marks a 0.95 percent rise.

The big news is that this brings the total number of seniors to about 32 million, or one-fourth of the entire population. This was expected since the huge cohort of baby boomers — which in Japan refers only to people born during a brief period in the late 1940s — is now passing the 65-year mark, and the projection is that seniors will make up a third of the population by 2035. To break down these portions even further, 18 percent of the population is over 70, 12 percent over 75 and 7 percent over 80.

What hasn’t been discussed as widely is the economic ramifications of these developments. In 2012 there were 5.95 million people over 65 who were still in the work force, or 9.5 percent of all workers over the age of 15. The average amount of savings — whether bank accounts, annuities or securities — of households with more than one person where the householder is at least 65 is ¥22.57 million. The average savings of all households is ¥16.64 million. Also, 16 percent of over-65 households have savings of more than ¥40 million, while only 10 percent of all households have saved that much.

The hope has been that once they retire boomers will spend their savings more readily than did previous generations, but so far that doesn’t seem to be the case. The ministry’s statistics indicate that more money is being spent by seniors who are still working. Those who aren’t working, meaning they are on fixed incomes provided by government or company pensions, are spending much less.

In either case, working or not, the seniors are not touching their savings. They are only spending their income. In the parlance of economists, they are asset rich but cash poor. The average income of an over-65 household is ¥2.96 million (that of an average household in general is ¥5.8 million), but the median income of an over-65 household is ¥2.29 million, meaning the majority of these households are within the ¥1 to ¥3 million income range, and that’s what they are living on.

A Cabinet Office survey conducted in 2011 asked seniors what the purpose of their savings was. About 62 percent said it was for sudden illnesses and future care and 20 percent said it was for “maintaining existence” in case of an unexpected financial problem. Only 5 percent said they would spend it on leisure, and a mere 1.6 percent wanted to use it for travel. It should be noted that 90 percent of these respondents owned their own homes or did not pay rent, so housing, at least, was not a primary concern. However, given the cost of private nursing homes, which charge upwards of ¥20 million just to move in, it’s perfectly reasonable to think that seniors believe they have to save for those final years. Until that sort of anxiety is addressed, it will always be difficult to get seniors to part with their savings.

Men start taking advantage of nursing shortage

Friday, September 6th, 2013

Two posts ago we talked about how difficult it is for men to become flight attendants in Japan, where the job is still considered women’s work. However, another occupation that in the past was solely associated with women, nursing, is now openly encouraging male applicants, and the men are signing up. In the West, of course, there have been male nurses for decades, but because of tenacious gender roles and the fact that nursing is still a poorly paid position, Japanese men until recently have never tried to break into the field. That’s changing.

Web ad for Komatsu Nursing School in Ichikawa Prefecture with representative gender ratio

Web ad for Komatsu Nursing School in Ichikawa Prefecture with representative gender ratio

According to health ministry surveys, there were 63,000 male nurses working in Japan in 2012, which is two-and-a-half times the number ten years ago and six times the number 20 years ago. Nevertheless, this number only accounts for 6.2 percent of all the nurses in Japan. It is still overwhelmingly considered a woman’s job, but the numbers are increasing. Asahi Shimbun reports that 17 percent of the 112 students who enrolled last spring at a nursing school in Atsugi, Kanagawa Prefecture, were male. The portion of men among the new class was even larger at a nursing school in Osaka City — 28 out of 118.

What’s significant, however, isn’t the portion, but the age range. The youngest are just out of high school or college, while the oldest is in his mid-40s. Since nursing schools are essentially technical schools (senmon gakko), they don’t follow the archaic university custom of effectively limiting enrollment to recent high school graduates, and many men who want to change career paths are opting for nursing.

One 31-year-old student at the Atsugi school told Asahi that he worked in the administrative department at a preparatory school after graduating from university, but he was always a contract worker and his salary never rose the whole time he worked there. Now that he’s married and has a child, he wants something more stable and potentially lucrative.

A 22-year-old fourth-year student at the Osaka school, which opened in 2010, thus making him a future alumnus of the school’s first class, said he originally wanted to be a paramedic, but his mother suggested nursing because she had read that local governments were cutting budgets for ambulance service. He’s already been offered a full-time job at a general hospital in Osaka.

Almost all nurses are hired as full-time regular employees with benefits, because the demand for nurses remains high. In 2013, the health ministry estimated a nationwide nursing shortage of 42,000. The projection for 2014 is 30,000, which takes into consideration the number of people who will be graduating from nursing schools next year, though it doesn’t necessarily factor in turnover, which is high.

The annual turnover rate nationwide is 10.9 percent, but in major cities, where most nurses work, it’s over 14 percent. The reasons are obvious: long and late hours, demanding work conditions and pay that many don’t think is fair compensation. Almost all nurses are women, and when they get married or have children they often decide to quit the business altogether.

The chief nurse at a hospital in Otaru, Hokkaido — a woman, it should be noted — told the Asahi that her department was actively recruiting male nurses because they are perceived as looking at the occupation in the long term, as a real career, as if women didn’t. “We can reduce turnover,” she said. The health ministry says that there are 550,000 “hidden nurses” in Japan, meaning women with nursing licenses who no longer work as nurses.

According to the National Personnel Authority, the average monthly pay for a 37-year-old nurse in Japan is ¥346,000, while that of a 35-year-old general office worker is ¥320,000, so actually the pay is slightly above average. Moreover, the Japan Nursing Association says that pay for nurses were not adversely affected by the recession five years ago. Starting salaries tend to be pegged to educational level: though all nurses must go to nursing school and pass a test, those who went to university beforehand usually start at higher salaries than those who are only high school graduates.

This is another area where men have the advantage. Men who enter nursing now tend to be college graduates, while women usually go to nursing school right out of high school, or even junior high school. Traditionally, many women became nurses by going to high schools with nursing programs. Another change that has made nursing more attractive is lighter work loads. In 2006 the health ministry implemented guidelines that mandated one nurse per seven patients in a hospital. Previously, the ratio was one to ten.

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