Female Labor: The Problem and Reality of Poverty

Asahi Shimbun Staff Writer

【The article below is the same as the article that appears in the thirteenth issue of the CGS Newsletter.】

●The Escalation of Female Poverty
Poverty has long been regarded as a problem mainly for men. However, statistics clearly indicate the low income of women. According to the employment income statistics of the Ministry of Finance, more than 40 percent of working women will have an annual income of less than 2 million yen. In fact, those women can barely survive with such an income, which falls far short of what is generally considered to be the minimum level for survival - for example, there was a popular book in Japan several years ago entitled "The Economics of Surviving the Era of a 3 million yen Annual Income."

Although male poverty is also on the rise, men make up less than 10 percent of those with an annual income of less than 2 million yen. Indeed, there are probably many women among the above-mentioned 40 percent who are sufficiently supported in their daily lives by male household members. However, this traditional "security net provided by marriage" is becoming more and more inadequate due to the sharp rise in domestic violence cases and divorces, the increasing rate of male poverty and the growing numbers of unmarried men and women. Despite these changing circumstances, there are still only a few women who are able to support themselves financially. Thus, the problem of female poverty has seriously escalated.
The rapid development of non-regular employment for women is what lies in the background. Since the Equal Employment Opportunities Law for Men and Women (hereafter, Equality Law) was established in 1985, women seem to have advanced in society. A number of high-ranking women and highly-paid women have emerged. Yet, two-thirds of the women who began working after the establishment of the law were drawn into non-regular employment such as part-time or temporary work. Currently, over 50 percent of working women are non-regular employees. One of the connotations of the term hiseiki (non-regular) in Japanese is "exception", but the bizarre reality is that non-regular employment now constitutes a majority in Japan.
Compared on an hourly rate, the average wage of a female part-time employee has continued to be about 40 percent of the average wage of a regular male employee. Thus, it is no wonder that the former can only earn about 2 million yen a year despite working the maximum 40-hour workweek prescribed by law.
In Japan, enterprise unions that mainly consist of regular employees are dominant (as opposed to vocational or industry-wide union organization). This means that the salaries of part-time and temporary workers tend to remain unchanged as they do not have the support of a labor union. In addition to the fact that their hourly wages are so low with no bonuses, perquisites or even a raise, their jobs are classed as short-term employment. Therefore, the convenience of such employment has been welcomed by businesses as they only have to refuse to renew a contract if they wish to make cut-backs. Since the recession in the late 1990s, labor cost cut-backs have run the gambit of non-regular employees from women to new graduates and men, even in the civil service. Today, one in three workers in Japan is a non-regular employee. Many people who are not supported by parents or a husband are forced to support themselves through non-permanent employment and live in constant fear of survival. That is why people say, "Japan's poverty starts with women."

● 1985: the Beginning of Female Poverty?
Why didn't the Equality Law curb female poverty? The reason lies in the fact that the Equality Law was introduced at the cost of the protection of women in response to the demands of the business world that "if a woman wants equality, she should work like a man." Under Article 36 of the Labor Standards Act in Japan, for all practical purposes "the sky is the limit" in regard to overtime if there is a labor-management agreement in place. That is why, until the establishment of the Equality Law, it was forbidden for women to work on holidays, weekends, or after 10pm on weekdays. This policy, based on the premise of the sexual division of labor, was an attempt to create a sustainable society by allocating time for childcare and housework to women only.
In fact, Japanese men were only able to work unlimited hours due to the housewife, the woman in the home, who took on the burden of unpaid labor. Now, however, a man still cannot refuse to work unlimited hours if he is to provide for his wife and children because the wages of women are so low. The lack of protection in the equality law has therefore led to the re-formulation of this "man-with-wife" working style as the norm for regular employees. Since a woman cannot have a wife, she is forced to leave regular employment after she has children and then proceed along the path of non-regular employment.
European countries have raised the economic power of women in the process of advancing job equality by bolstering the working-hour regulations for both sexes and making a work-life balance model the norm. However, in Japan, the promotion of "equality" in the form of easing of working-hour regulations for both sexes has resulted in the rapid rise of non-regular employment for women.
The third-insured person category or the "housewives' pension" in the National Pension system and the Worker Dispatch Law were also adopted in 1985. People who fall under the third-insured person category in the National Pension have insurance coverage from their spouse and are exempt from fees (Those in the "first-insured person" category get insurance by themselves and those in the "second-insured person" category are insured by proxy through a company). Yet, even if one works to avoid becoming a dependent third-insured person, wages are often so low that the total household income decreases under the burden of premium payments. Therefore, many women who work part-time deliberately limit their incomes. This is another reason why part-time wages have remained so low. Thus, women who cannot depend on their husbands' pensions have an extremely low pension or end up with no pension at all. The system has given rise to the problem of pensionless women in an aging society.
The Worker Dispatch Law was introduced because "a greater necessity is perceived after the Equality Law for higher paying jobs in the specialized sector than for part-time jobs as it is predicted that there will be increasing numbers of women unable to handle the long working hours of regular employment (Akira Takanashi, Professor Emeritus, Shinshu University)." Since then dispatch work has spread not only to women, but also to men and has become a root of poverty, as seen by phenomena such as the "Toshikoshi Hakenmura" (New Year's Eve Village for Dispatch Workers, a place that provided food and shelter for dispatch workers who were unemployed over the New Year period).
Chisa Fujiwara, Associate Professor at Iwate University, cites the introduction of the Equality Law, the third insured person system and the Worker Dispatch Law as the three factors that escalated the problem of female poverty and refers to 1985 as "the Beginning of Female Poverty."

● Why is female poverty invisible?
Despite the reality of the situation, why is female poverty so invisible? The reason lies in the fact that it is even harder for impoverished women to make their voices heard than it is for men.
Although they have to work long hours to earn enough money for survival, when non-regular female employee lacking in stability has a family, she must also do the child-rearing and housework during her work breaks, a necessity that is caused by gender-divided labor roles. According to research from 1997 about single mothers, there was a case of a divorcee who had custody of her three children. Because she had children and, furthermore, was a woman in her 40s, her job opportunities were limited to part-time jobs. Most of those part-time jobs offered an hourly wage of about 700-800 yen, which was just barely the minimum wage. In order to raise children, she held two part-time jobs, afternoon and evening, and finally reached a salary of 3 million yen per year. However, she worked about 3,000 hours, which was 1.5 times the working hours of the average male regular employee. Under such conditions, one cannot spare the time for activism to appeal for one's plight.
Moreover, there is the social bias that "women should be taken care of by men." This bias invites the perceived notions that women will not be in need even if their wages are low or even if they lose their jobs. It represses the voices of those who see the poverty of women as a key problem that must be ameliorated.
Besides, there is the problem of violence against women. Although it is highly visible when a man is poor and living on the street, one doesn't see very many women. Because the degree of hazard of being on the street is, for women, much higher than for men, it is said that women pass the night in a chain restaurant, or hide. The editorial staff of the magazine Big Issue, which was devised as a means for the homeless to receive a cash income, say that they cannot recommend such sales methods to women. Their opinion is that the act itself of selling that magazine makes it obvious that the seller is homeless, and so, for women, that makes them appear weaker and they may meet with some unthinkable injury.
It is said that the key to resolving the problems of poverty is to look squarely at the above-mentioned problems and take appropriate measures. However, problem resolution is further hindered by the fact that female poverty is supported by a system in which a male majority holds economic power and makes women dependent, as well as by the violence against women "our society prefers not to see." Yet, it is important to consider that female poverty has also led to an increase in non-regular employment for men and has become a starting point for the culture of poverty. Thus, we cannot conquer other forms of poverty if we do not first tackle the problem of female poverty. There is an urgent need for poverty eradication and employment policies that will facilitate each and every individual to work self-sufficiently, regardless of gender or sexuality.