As Japan’s Work Culture Changes, Freelancers Bear the Brunt of Abuse - OZY | A Modern Media Company

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Freelancing is rising in Japan, but so is harassment of those less protected workers.

By Ben Halder

Japan has long been one of the most traditional and least flexible labor markets in the world. The country’s seishain (“regular”) workers have historically enjoyed near-absolute job security and generous benefits, safe in the knowledge they have a job for life.

But with that stability comes a life lived at the office. A 2016 report by the Japanese government found that 1 in 10 workers clock more than 100 hours of overtime a month. More than 20 percent clock 80-plus hours a month. The report also found that workers used, on average, only half of their contracted annual leave each year. 

Japan’s younger generation is beginning to change that, embracing more flexible working arrangements through freelance and gig work. But in one of the world’s most conservative labor markets, this new form of work isn’t necessarily making lives better. In fact:

62 percent of freelance workers in Japan say they’re subject to “power harassment.”

That’s far more than the 38 percent of regular workers who say they have been harassed. The October 2019 survey — conducted by three private trade bodies: the Japan Actors Union, MIC Freelance Liaison Committee and the Professional and Parallel Career Freelance Association — found that 59 percent had been harassed through intimidation or defamation, while 42 percent referenced unreasonable demands and 39 percent cited economically motivated pressures. In addition, more than a third claimed sexual harassment — inappropriate inquiries into their private lives and mockery over physical attributes were the main offenses.

Not only did the report highlight disproportionately high levels of harassment, but it also suggested most abuse goes unreported. Of those who faced harassment, 46 percent failed to report the incident, mostly due to fear of it affecting future prospects. Over half believed reporting harassment would be damaging to professional connections, and 43 percent feared it would result in a loss of potential earnings.

While pay is increasing, it is still a battle for freelance workers to get paid fairly for the services they provide. “[Freelance workers] should be recognized for their skills and paid accordingly,” says Glenda S. Roberts, a professor of Asia-Pacific studies at Tokyo’s Waseda University, but “this is tough in an internal labor market where core workers expect to be trained by, and move up in, the same firm, and career hiring happens en masse once a year.”

But despite the challenges, the freelance revolution has landed in Japan, and it is gaining momentum quickly. 

According to crowdsourcing firm Lancers, 17 percent of Japan’s workforce are classified as freelance. This amounts to some 11.2 million workers (official figures released by the Japanese government put the total at 3.5 million — a discrepancy born from the fact that the two reports classify “freelance” in different ways, with the government only counting full-time freelancers while Lancer counts those with freelance side hustles). While the figure lags far behind that of the United States, where 30 percent of the workforce are freelancers, Japan’s figures are up 5 percentage points from the previous year. 

The growth of freelance work was initially driven by Japan’s slowing economy, which jeopardized the country’s job-for-life culture. “The reason for the proliferation of insecure jobs in the past decades is due to the bad economy and subsequent shrinking of seishain jobs offered by firms,” says Roberts. 

As freelance work becomes more popular, it has shifted the attitudes of younger workers. A recent Deloitte report found that 55 percent of millennials in Japan who were surveyed are considering taking on short-term contracts or freelance work. Making more money, having greater flexibility in terms of working hours and achieving a better work-life balance were the main motivators. 

With numbers increasing, the earning power of Japan’s freelance workers is also on the rise. According to payment platform Payoneer, 2019 will see a 125 percent year-over-year increase in the earnings of Japan’s freelancers.

In a parallel shift, Japan’s gig economy is also taking off. Lancers reports 11 percent of workers have at least two jobs. This differs from freelance work in the sense that many who are taking on second jobs do so alongside full-time, contract employment — a practice traditionally frowned upon by Japanese employers.

For businesses trying to adapt to Japan’s slowing economy and rapidly aging workforce, freelancers offer a fresh approach. And a cheaper one: It’s estimated that freelancers can save businesses 20 to 30 percent a year and the fact that they aren’t official employees reduces risk to the company. Employers are able “to select flexible working style, both geographically and in terms of length of contract,” says Ryuta Suzuki, a professor of business administration at Kobe University. As more firms turn to freelancers, it’s changing the business culture and employment structure of many Japanese firms, he says. But this cultural and structural change is slow, despite the efforts of Japan’s Fair Trade Commission to improve working conditions for freelancers by encouraging the enforcement of existing labor legislation.

As the number of workers seeking alternative forms of employment in Japan rises, and businesses become more reliant on flexible labor, companies will have to shift their approach if they hope to overcome the changing realities of the Japanese economy. But the awareness of harassment among workers may be growing — and younger workers, more likely to freelance, may be more willing to name abuse for what it is.

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