RIETI Report November 2004

Identifying Conditions for Women's Active Participation in Society - Part II
<RIETI Special Interview> TAKEISHI Emiko

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Identifying Conditions for Women's Active Participation in Society - Part II
<RIETI Special Interview> TAKEISHI Emiko

TAKEISHI EmikoHead Senior Analyst, Social Development Research Group, NLI Research Institute

Greetings from RIETI

As many of our readers are no doubt aware, people are celebrating Thanksgiving in the United States today. Japan's Labor Thanksgiving Day, celebrated on November 23, was declared a national holiday in 1948 as a day for citizens to express gratitude to one another for work done throughout the year, and to enjoy the fruits of those labors. Before 1948 the day was known as Ninamesai (the Harvest Festival or Thanksgiving Day). In the traditional Ninamesai ritual, the Emperor makes the season's first offering to the gods of freshly harvested rice and sake (rice wine), and then partakes of them himself. This celebration of the harvest has also taken root among the common people and is observed at shrines throughout Japan. However you choose to express your thanks, we hope you enjoy a pleasant autumn.

In this second of two interviews on women's active participation in society, "RIETI Report" spoke with Emiko Takeishi, head senior analyst at NLI Research Institute, one of the presenters at the RIETI symposium "Identifying Conditions for Women's Active Participation in Society," and an advocate of greater variety in the way people work. Focusing on the diverse working styles of women, Takeishi argues that employment options for women can be expanded and working conditions for non-regular employees improved through their incorporation into the core workforce.

RIETI Special Interview

RIETI Report: It is said that more and more non-regular employees are being incorporated into the core workforce in Japan. Could you tell us exactly what is happening?

Takeishi: There used to be an important distinction between the tasks of regular employees and those of non-regular employees. Core tasks within a company such as management, guidance and instruction, and decision-making were for regular employees, whereas non-regular employees were assigned routine and non-managerial tasks. In recent years, however, some companies have begun to appoint capable and willing non-regular employees to positions involving such core tasks, and the trend is growing. As a result, the distinction between regular and non-regular employees is becoming blurred. This tendency for non-regular employees to be assigned to core tasks is called "incorporation of non-regular employees into the core workforce."

RIETI Report: What do you think led companies to begin incorporating non-regular employees into their core workforces? What will be the impact on companies of expanded non-regular workforces?

Takeishi: One important factor behind this ongoing trend is the growing pressure on companies to reduce personnel costs. A company that relies heavily on regular employees (i.e., permanently employed full-time workers) tends to have higher personnel costs. In order to reduce these costs, and to give themselves the flexibility to adjust staff size according to changes in demand, more and more companies, particularly in the service sector, are making greater use of non-regular employees. Consequently, in many companies, non-regular employees now make up a substantial portion of the overall workforce and perform major tasks in support of mainline businesses. Thus, there is a greater need to establish an environment that fosters the active participation of non-regular employees.

To achieve this end, it is necessary to discard the conventional idea of non-regular employees as a subordinate workforce. It is becoming increasingly important to create an environment where talented people can demonstrate their ability to the fullest extent. Indeed, companies are increasingly identifying capable non-regular employees and letting them handle core tasks. This can be seen as an attempt to better utilize the expanded non-regular workforce by focusing on its qualitative aspects, rather than simply on its sheer size. For instance, some restaurant chain operators are appointing non-regular employees as restaurant managers. And one credit card company has assigned some of its non-regular employees to supervisory positions in charge of screening the creditworthiness of individual customers.

However, there are also pitfalls to this approach. If a company seeks to increase the number of non-regular employees solely for the sake of cost reduction, it may succeed in creating a "cheap" workforce but end up depriving employees of the incentive to work hard. In the long run, this is bad for a company. In making greater use of non-regular employees, a company needs to ensure that the quality of products and services is maintained. This highlights the importance of effective personnel management in getting the most out of employees.

RIETI Report: How will the incorporation of non-regular employees into the core workforce affect employment options for women and men? How will it affect family life?

Takeishi: As long as companies continue to define non-regular employees as a subordinate workforce, non-regular employees will find limited opportunities even if they make an effort to demonstrate their abilities. However, with more and more non-regular employees incorporated into the core workforce, some positive changes are already taking place. Some companies have introduced a single performance evaluation system for both regular and non-regular employees, while others have shifted to a more flexible system for non-regular employees. I believe these efforts by individual companies are leading to greater variations in work style for non-regular employees.

One major characteristic of the work patterns of Japanese women is the lack of correlation between the labor participation rate among women and their academic qualifications. In particular, the share of those returning to work after child-rearing is generally lower among more educated women. Most jobs targeted at women with older children are non-regular positions, which many highly educated women find unattractive. Thus, we have had a situation in which there is a fairly high potential demand for jobs, but which barely translates to actual demand. As more companies incorporate non-regular employees into their core workforces, however, employment opportunities for these potential job seekers should increase, offering more options for women with diverse needs.

To cite one example, the number of job applications from married women rose at a regional bank after it began allowing part-time employees to handle certain customer relations tasks. A wider range of job opportunities for women will probably bring changes to the way married couples balance their respective careers and family life.

RIETI Report: What can be done in terms of policy measures to promote the incorporation of non-regular employees into the core workforce in a way that expands employment options for women?

Takeishi: Actually, regular employees are already feeling the impact of non-regular employees moving into the core workforce. For instance, some companies have introduced a single qualification system that applies to both regular and non-regular employees. Under such a system, decisions on employee promotion are made based on the results of tests. Regular and non-regular employees are evaluated on an equal basis and it is quite possible for a non-regular employee to pass a certain qualification test while a regular employee fails to do so. Thus, regular employees are being evaluated based their willingness and ability to carry out certain tasks. As such, the issue of working conditions for non-regular employees is affecting the overall working conditions of both regular and non-regular employees - and the way work gets done in an organization.

Up until now, non-regular and regular employees have been managed separately under different systems. Now that non-regular employees' status is improving in many companies, it is becoming difficult to impose conditions solely on non-regular employees without affecting regular employees as well. In the future, companies will have to offer conditions - working hours, work location, types of assignments and so forth - that are tailored to the needs of individual employees and not based on a distinction between regular and non-regular status. The government should implement policy measures that facilitate such changes. Many look at the trend toward greater use of non-regular employees with alarm, based on the traditional two-tier framework of low-status non-regular employees and high-status regular employees. But non-regular staff enjoy certain benefits that regular employees do not, such as greater flexibility in their work styles. Thus, what is important is that non-regular employees seek to narrow the gap in working conditions between themselves and regular employees, while taking advantage of the benefits of being non-regular employees.

Achieving a better balance between regular and non-regular employees in terms of working conditions is now becoming an important issue. Policy measures taken on behalf of non-regular employees should work to create this balance. But in reality it is extremely difficult to improve working conditions for non-regular employees while at the same time maintaining the benefits exclusive to regular staff. It is therefore important to set a policy direction in which companies can enjoy certain benefits, while expanding the range of working styles available to meet the needs of today's diverse workforce.

For your reference
Hot Issues "Labor/ Employment"
http://www.rieti.go.jp/en/special/hot-issues/categories/labor.html

Program for the RIETI Symposium "Identifying Conditions for Women's Active Participation in Society," click here.

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