Developed Nations Symposium Held in 2021
On Tuesday, February 22, 2022, an international symposium was held online on the theme, "Overview and Current Status of Legal Systems for Fixed-Term Contract Workers." Trade union representatives and employer representatives from the Netherlands, trade union representatives from the UK, and experts from Japan were invited to speak at the symposium, which featured reports from the respective attendees as well as a panel discussion.
A total of 63 participants, including Japanese trade unionists, companies, academics, and the mass media, attended the symposium.
After opening remarks by JILAF President Aihara, reports were heard from both the Netherlands and the UK.
[Summary of remarks]
< Federation of Dutch Trade Unions (FNV), Dutch Federation of Private Employment Agencies (ABU) >
After World War II, in order to rebuild its economy, the Netherlands adopted institutions such as a tripartite socioeconomic council of employers, workers, and government, as well as labor-management labor associations. The Wassenaar Agreement of 1982 was achieved in the face of rising unemployment. Labor law reforms in 1996 and 1999 prohibited disparities in wages and working conditions between full-time and part-time workers and established rules for conversion to indefinite-term work contracts. Against this background, the employment rate of women who had been out of the labor force due to marriage and child-rearing increased.
Recently, temporary employment has also been increasing. Not only for workers, but also for companies, a certain degree of flexibility is necessary. Flexible working styles are provided through temporary workers, and temporary workers have labor agreements in place that cover various conditions. Around 2000, it changed such that wages were paid for the first six months based on their own specific wage table, and after six months wages and working conditions were applied similar to those of corporate employees. From 2015, the specific wage table was abolished and the wages and working conditions became the same as those of company employees. Opportunities for on-the-job training were also provided to temporary workers. In 2015, compensation for termination was introduced and applied to temporary workers. In 2020, an amendment made this applicable from the date of employment.
The number of workers in ambiguous employment has been increasing since the 2000s, and discussions continue on how to protect against the problem of those appearing to be self-employed not being protected by labor laws. The direction of the new government is not yet clear.
< UK Trades Union Congress (TUC) >
The status of workers is also becoming increasingly non-regular in the UK. The financial crisis of 2007 did not increase unemployment, but it did increase the number of precarious jobs that are not permanent. The term "precarious employment" refers to zero-hour contracts and seasonal workers, as well as self-employed workers who earn less than the minimum wage. Surveys show that one in four people has experienced platform work, and that this has also spread to all sectors, including skilled trades as well as unskilled labor.
The distribution of employment relative to precarious work reflects structural inequalities in the labor market. There are more women than men in precarious employment, and black and minority workers are more likely than whites to be zero-hour contractors, among other racially discriminatory factors. As a result of this precarious employment, employers have more power in the workplace. Last-minute and sudden shift adjustments and cancellations are on the rise, with the risks being passed on to workers.
Those in precarious employment are replaced more frequently and are less likely to join unions. The gig economy does not have a fixed workplace, making it more difficult for workers to make contact to organize. On the other hand, there are examples of successful gig economy organizing.
One of the characteristics of the UK labor market is its weak protection for individuals. Many people work as self-employed, although in reality they are employees. Even if a labor tribunal clear ruling on this, waiting for months or years for their case to be dealt with involves significant effort for workers.
The current ruling party is right-wing, pro-free-market, anti-regulation, and anti-union, and although it won votes at the election by promising to protect workers' rights, this has not been realized after more than two years.
< Commentary by Chikako Kanki, Associate Professor, Graduate Schools for Law and Politics, The University of Tokyo >
To summarize the regulations in the Netherlands, the UK, and Japan, there are virtually no substantive restrictions in all three countries that apply at the contract conclusion stage, and under the regulations of all three countries, workers on indefinite-term work contracts are treated at a disadvantage compared to those on non-fixed-term contracts. With regard to employment security, in the U.K., unilateral dismissal by an employer is prohibited under unfair dismissal laws, and dissolution of a indefinite-term work contract and termination of employment under a fixed-term contract are treated in the same manner under the law. Dutch laws and regulations are similar to those in Japan. Originally, in the Netherlands, the dismissal of an indefinite-term worker required the involvement of an administrative body or a court, and the dismissal had to be reasonable.
One issue of concern for fixed-term contract workers in Japan is the disparity in treatment compared to regular employees, but in both the U.K. and the Netherlands, this disparity is only minor. The disparity in treatment between regular and non-regular workers continues to be a serious social issue in Japan compared to other countries, despite the fact that the legal regulations do not very differ greatly, which is due to the peculiarities of regular employment in Japan. Japan’s flexibility of contracts in the internal labor market for regular employees, strong job security until retirement, and high wages are one side of a coin, with the other side inextricably linked to the circumstances of people who are restricted in their working styles for various reasons, or who cannot become regular employees and are thus stuck in precarious employment. The structural situation is that the system prioritizes the possibilities of utilizing human resources over a long span of time, rather than the performance of the job in question, so that even if the job does not change much on a spot basis, major disparities become a problem.
In all these countries, the protection of workers with fixed-term contracts has come much closer to that of workers with indefinite-term work contracts. However, this has led to the phenomenon of employment being fragmented. Zero-hour contracts, and other working styles that have are flexible but have fixed work hours and offer very little prospect of earning a decent wage, are on the rise.
As has been reported for zero-hour contracts and "hidden" self-employed workers, the issue used to be the disparity between employed workers (whether fixed-term or indefinite-term), but now it is the disparity between employed and non-employed workers. The biggest issue is protecting workers who are formally self-employed, but suffer from the same subordination and weak bargaining power as employed workers. Three directions can be pursued to address this issue.
(i) Protect some self-employed workers under labor laws through expansion of the concept of "worker" and presumption of workerhood
(ii) Include dependent self-employed workers in collective labor-management relations and protect them through collective bargaining and labor agreements
(iii) Directly introduce and strengthen new regulations for forms of work not covered by existing labor laws
In considering the relationship between flexible, diverse working styles and the legal system, the perspective of whose flexibility should be respected needs to be fundamental. In many countries, that flexibility is biased in favor of employers and can threaten workers' livelihoods. Mechanisms to address loopholes in regulations and to ensure proper implementation are also important. Furthermore, if precarious employment is itself a threat to the livelihood of workers, the question must be how to consider the division of roles between the social security system and labor laws.
This was followed by a panel discussion and question-and-answer session, which covered the topics outlined below.
① How to organize non-regular employees, "hidden" self-employed workers, and younger workers in the future is a challenge that requires a different approach from those pursued in the past to organize these workers.
② Regarding the cost burden of joining a union and obstacles to union membership, it is necessary to present the benefits of membership and promote understanding of the benefits.
③ The Netherlands has a labor agreement coverage rate of approximately 80% (organization rate of 24%), while the United Kingdom has 57% in the private sector (organization rate of 13% in the private sector), so the approach should be tailored to the industry type.
④ Part-time work in the Netherlands is a good example, as most of the workers themselves are able to work the way they want to work—however, in regard to the gap between the underpinning philosophy of labor laws and their operation, the key is whether workers can earn the wages they need to make a living.
⑤ Regarding the rules for conversion to indefinite-term work contracts and their operation, the balance between fixed-term and indefinite-term work is important.
⑥ Deeper discussion must take place for the protection of non-conventional workers, such as platform workers and "hidden" self-employed workers, striving to balance flexibility and security in the way they work.
In closing the symposium, JILAF Executive Director Motobayashi commented, "JILAF conducts its business to contribute to economic and social development through the establishment of constructive labor-management relations, but a safe working environment for everyone must be guaranteed, regardless of employment status or work style. Hearing the stories of both these countries has reaffirmed how important this is."