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Let us achieve a minimum wage raise to 1,000 yen per hour using the power of social solidarity

The working poor are rapidly increasing in number in Japan. In order to cure this social disease and narrow the gap between poor and rich -a major social problem of our country- it is absolutely necessary to establish the national uniform minimum wage system as well as to raise the present minimum wage, which is incredibly lower than other major countries. We asked National Confederation of Trade Unions (Zenroren) Vice President OHKI Hisashi, who chairs the Zenroren panel on the minimum wage question.

Q: Many people now share the demand put forward by Zenroren for an increase in the minimum.

OHKI Hisashi: It’s good to hear that. Zenroren has been saying, “It’s wrong that the minimum wage is kept below the amount of benefits of public assistance to low income earners. The uniform national minimum wage should be established at 1,000 yen per hour. We have lobbied local assemblies to adopt resolutions to this effect and heighten public awareness of the need for the raise.

Last year, the “working poor” became a social problem. The raise of the federal minimum wage by about 250 yen (40 percent) in the United States struck Prime Minister ABE Shinzo’s cabinet and the business sector. Thus, the government came to be obliged to submit a bill in the Diet to the effect that it is necessary to consider striking a balance between the minimum wage and the public assistance to the needy households. The labor union federations and the opposition parties are unanimous in calling for the minimum wage to be raised to 1,000 yen or more per hour. This call is supported by the mass media. An Asahi Shimbun editorial said, “The minimum wage must not be lower than welfare benefits.”

Given the golden opportunity to win a raise in the minimum wage, our real struggle is starting. The Central Labor Council’s panel on the minimum wage will soon begin deliberating the issue of a minimum wage increase. It will set a standard for the minimum wage in early August, followed by a revision to the local minimum wage in each prefecture. In the upcoming House of Councilors election (July 29), the minimum wage increase will be an important issue as part of the effort to narrow the gap between poor and rich. If we are to achieve a minimum wage increase, it is necessary that parties that accept our demands achieve their advances.

With ‘working poor’ increasing rapidly, Japan’s poverty rate is the 2nd highest among major countries

Q: A recent TV report about “Internet cafe refugees” has given rise to public concern about the “working poor”.

Ohki: I found the program really heartbreaking. While large corporations are making record profits, the number of working people whose incomes are below the level of welfare benefits despite their hard work is rapidly increasing. Japan’s poverty rate is the second highest among the major countries, next only to the United States.

If you live alone and are to exercise the constitutional right to maintain the “minimum standards of wholesome and cultured living” (Article 25), you will need an annual income of 2.7 million yen in major cities and 2.2 million yen in local cities. But one in every four Japanese people earns less than 200 million yen a year. Most of these low-income earners are contingent workers, but there are also extremely low-income earners among full-time young workers, small- and medium-sized business owners, and farmers. Full-time job opening is decreasing for high school and college graduates. In addition, it would be even more difficult for you to find a full-time job after you were dismissed as a result of corporate restructuring.

In many cases nowadays, both husband and wife are contingent workers. A government survey shows that the average annual income of couples in their 20s is 2.3 million yen, and in their 30s 2.8 million yen. The wife would be fired if she gets pregnant. With the couple’s income halved, it would be very difficult for the couple to raise children. Zenroren’s Liaison Council of Unions of Part-timers and other Contingent Workers conducted a survey of contingent workers’ conditions and found that more than 10 percent of couples who are contingent workers in each age group.

Income gaps are causing gaps in living standards and in accessibility to medical services and education, and the problem of working poor will continue to affect society. The working poor is a product of the so-called “structural reform” policy promoted by the government and the business sector. Cost-cutting restructuring has involved replacement of full-time workers with contingent workers and the bullying of small- and medium-sized suppliers. Its consequence has been a major increase in the unemployment and contingent workers. Transfer of national and local government jobs to the public sector and their privatization meant a rise in demand for contingent work force. Also, major adverse reforms of social services and the taxation system have forced ordinary people to endure more hardships. But the government has given large corporations generous tax breaks. While large corporations are prospering, the nation is ruining.

Japan’s minimum wage is the lowest among the major countries

Q: We are demanding the establishment of a national uniform minimum wage.

Ohki: Yes. Many countries are raising the minimum wage as part of the effort to reduce the poverty rate. Most of the major countries set the national uniform minimum wage at about 1,200 yen or higher (in the comparison of purchasing power) and are linking the minimum wage to social services, including the unemployment benefits, pension benefits, and medical services. In Japan, the minimum wage, which differs from prefecture to prefecture, ranges between 610 yen and 719 yen. It national average is 673 yen. If you are a contingent worker working the same hours as the full-time workers and receiving the minimum wage, your monthly pay will be 50,000 yen to 80,000 yen lower than the full-time workers’ pay. Part-time workers receive 30,000 yen to 50,000 yen less than full-time workers.

Our immediate demand is that the minimum wage be 1,000 yen or more. Even this is a modest demand because even if you work 2,000 hours a year at 1,000 yen per hour, you will only earn 2,000,000 yen a year, the lowest possible level that makes ends meet. In Europe, the minimum wage is set at 50 percent of the average wages, and will soon raise it to 60 percent.

In Japan, the minimum wage is only 32 percent of the average wages. Its amount differs from prefecture to prefecture. So, wage gaps persist between large companies and small- and medium-sized companies, between men and women, and between major cities and local cities.

If a national uniform minimum wage is established, it will be possible to link it to guaranteeing the minimum living standards and the “fair trade that guarantees descent wages.” It will be possible to substantially raise the minimum wage if large corporations distribute larger share of profits to small- and medium-sized firms.

This will be the way to increase the personal purchasing power, induce small- and medium-sized companies to increase production, and invigorate smaller businesses and regional economies as well as the Japanese economy. If people’s living standards become stable and better, the birth rate will be improved. It will be the way to increase labor force as well as tax revenue and the public share of burden for social insurances and improve local government finances and social services.

Hourly wage of more than 1,000 yen is possible if the government increases assistance to small- and medium-sized businesses

Q: The business sector and the government are reluctant to support an increase in the minimum wage on the grounds that it will only increase unemployment.

Oki: They simply want to thwart a minimum wage increase. Although they are insisting that there cannot be a minimum wage increase without small- and medium-sized companies increasing their productivity. But the hard fact is that in many countries the minim wage has been raised without increasing the unemployment rate.

In a meeting of the government panel discussing how to increase the ability to achieve economic growth, IWA Uichiro, chairman of ITOCHU Corporation, stated, “The determining factor for a minimum wage increase should be the cost of living. It is wrong to force workers to endure lower living standards than the poverty line on the grounds that the company does not have the ability to pay. It is not scientific to link productivity to raising the minimum wage. The issue of increasing costs should be resolved through specific efforts of the company. Japan’s minimum wage is too low as compared with other major counries. 

Even a business leader had to admit the present state of the minimum wage in Japan.

Clearly, large corporations and the government are responsible for the present difficulty facing small- and medium-sized firms. The financial difficulties facing the small- and medium-sized businesses have arisen from a fierce price war, unit price dumping for supplies and soaring prices of materials and fuels, which producers cannot shift onto prices of the product they produce.

The Fair Trade Commission is considering amending the anti-trust law to allow costs to be counted as part of prices. At any rate, if the government uses tax breaks and subsidies to assist small- and medium-sized businesses, and if orders from state and local governments are put in bids that would guarantee appropriate interests and labor costs, raising the minimum wage to 1,000 yen is possible.

In the House of Councilors election, we will increase our movement in the workplace and communities to change politics

Q: What should we do to win a raise of the minimum wage to 1,000 yen?

Ohki: We need policies to achieve a substantial raise in the minimum wage and to protect small- and medium-sized businesses through expanding social solidarity and defeating the divide-and-rule policy pursued by the government and the business sector. It is particularly important for parties to support our demands to increase their seats in the House of Councilors in the upcoming election. We will carry out publicity in the workplace and in communities on the issue of the minimum wage in conjunction with the election.

We will work in line with the following plans:

We will carry out publicity to make known to the public our demands: Return large corporations’ profits to workers and small- and medium-sized firms; raise the minimum wage to 1,000 yen per hour so that there be no working poor; and carry out policy of defending small- and medium-sized firms.

We will visit unions and collect signatures in support of the above stated demands.

We will discuss ways to increase cooperation with various democratic organizations, including the National Federation of Producers and Traders, the New Japan Women’s Association, the Association for Protection of Lives and Health, and the National Federation of Farmers’ Movements.

We will discuss with associations of small- and medium-sized businesses to win support for our demand for a minimum wage raise and share demands for policies to protect smaller businesses.

We will meet political parties, Dietmembers as well as local assembly members and municipality heads and request them to promote adoption of resolutions in local assemblies requesting the government to realize these demands.

We will take part in actions urging the government to establish a policy of raising the minimum wage to 1,000 yen and defend small- and medium-sized businesses.

We will let our friends know political parties’ achievement election platforms to help send more representatives to the Diet who support our demands, calling on workers to vote for a raise in the minimum wage to 1,000 yen.

Finally, we will connect the movement to realize a minimum age raise with the effort to expand union ranks, calling on contingent workers and young workers to join the union in order to secure a bright future.

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