For nearly two decades, Ms Sugiyama (a pseudonym, as are the other women profiled in this article) moved back and forth between Tokyo and Osaka, performing office work for companies.
Now in her late 40s and still unmarried, she works for a worker dispatch firm. While on the job, she avoids personal conversations with others except when discussing things related to work. Too many unhappy experiences have led her to fear “human landmines.”
One day she came back to the office limping badly. A male co-worker had opened a door with too much force, and her toes had been caught in the door frame. Clearly in pain, she was advised to go home early, but took some pain killers and continued working.
A subsequent examination found that a toe had been fractured in multiple places, and the doctor told her it would take “three months” to recover. But she continued to limp to the office, afraid to take time off for fear her short-term work contract would not be renewed.
Writing in Shincho 45 (December), Miho Hirai describes single working women like Sugiyama as “Wasurareta onna-tachi” (the forgotten women).
Initially Sugiyama worked for a worker dispatch firm to earn money for study in the United States. Back then, she did English correspondence and other jobs for 1,600 yen an hour. Now, 16 years later, the pay is unchanged.
What has changed is that in those times, a majority of temp-help jobs were performed by women in their 20s. Now the majority are performed by those in their early 40s, or even some in their 50s.
According to statistics from the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, in the middle of this year, 18.81 million of Japan’s workers were employed as non-regular staff at companies—an all-time record. This, based on the most recent survey that’s conducted every five years, found that gave the overall percentage of women working at so-called “haken” (dispatch), part-time, “arubaito,” and so on) accounted for 57.5% of all working women.
When employed as regular company staff with twice-a-year bonuses, paid vacation time and other perks, and opportunities for promotion, working women felt confident their claims for equal treatment under the law were reasonable. But the insecure women described by Hirai lead lives of quiet desperation. Competing with men is the furthest thing on their minds. All they can focus on is to hope for steady employment at an hourly wage.
Akiko, age 40, commutes to her job in central Tokyo from a rental apartment in the suburbs, a one-way ride of just over one hour. Exhausted after five days of work, she spends her Saturdays recovering and doing household chores, with no time for any social life.
“If I were to marry now, it would be too late to have children. It would just be a matter of time until I wound up caring for my husband,” she says. “I’m all right now, but after I reach my 60s, I get the feeling things are going to be really lonely.”
Akiko had started her career as a regular company staff member, and worked eight years as a computer systems engineer. But the long working hours ground her down and she suffered burnout, quitting upon reaching age 30.
She then began working as a temporary staff worker, biding her time until another regular position would come along. Several years ago, however, she was the target of “power harassment” by a manager at a client company and resigned after a year and nine months.
“Whatever the reason, once you rub a company regular the wrong way, you’re out,” she sighs. “There are ways to fight it, but it takes time and money and it’s simply not realistic. Even if they do take me back, I won’t be able to work every day on a bed of nails like that place.”
Akiko’s greatest concern is how many more years she can continue working as a temp-help worker.
“When do they start paying social security pensions? From age 60? Or 65? What will happen when I reach retirement age? At companies you can find various dispatch workers in their 50s, but I’ve never seen one in their 60s. There’s no precedent, no model, and that makes me worry. Because it is certainly what’s in store for me.”
Virtually all of the ambitious working conditions set as objectives by the Abe government, such as female directors serving on the boards of companies listed on the stock exchange, three years of maternity leave and so on will, if enacted, only apply to regular company staff members under a fixed set of standards.
The words of Kaori, another of the women profiled by Hirai, left her with a deep and sad impression. “Once you deviate from the established way,” she said, “there’s no place to take you in.”