We observe the increase in the share of non-regular workers in the labor market in Japan. The percentage of female non-regular workers is over 50% as of 2010, and that of their male counterparts is approaching 20%. If there were no inequality between regular and non-regular workers, this increase would not cause any problem. However, this is not the case. The hourly wage gap between full-time and part-time workers is 56% in Japan. This may be attributed to difference in human capital. However, the gap is over 80% in Denmark and Sweden. It is not plausible that part-time workers in these countries have higher human capital than their counterparts in Japan. Furthermore, Hiroshi Tarohmaru of Kyoto University shows that the difference in income between regular and non-regular workers remains even after controlling for human capital and working hours.
Persistent inequality between regular and non-regular workers in Japan: A sociological approach
Many specialists in this research field have pointed out the inequality, but they have not proposed good theories that explain it. Thus I would like to propose a sociological theory to explain it in this column. The theory stands on three building blocks: The functional theory of social stratification, the theory of welfare-employment regime, and the theory of the relationship between global forces, local institutions, and social inequality. Let me explain them step by step below.
Theory of social stratification
The functional theory of social stratification, which was popular in the 1940s, assumes that social resources are allocated to roles rather than to people and that people try to get roles with more resources. Harrison White and Shin Arita generalize this idea and assume that social resources are allocated to social positions in society, not to individuals and that individuals compete for the positions. Suppose that there are two Ph.D. students (A and B) with equal academic performance and that there is a job opening at a prestigious university. Also suppose that A got the job by chance, while B failed to do that. Then A receives good social resources such as decent salary, a nice office, and ample research grants, while B does not. The difference between them occurs because A got the job, not because A’s human capital is higher than B’s one.
Theory of welfare-employment regime
A second building block is the theory of welfare-employment regime proposed by Jun Imai, Taro Miyamoto, and Esping-Anderson. The theory assumes that each society has to secure livelihood of its members by providing social security and security of employment. The system of social security and security of employment is called welfare-employment regime. Each society has not developed the same welfare-employment regime, however. Japan has established a regime in which social security is realized via the security of employment.
There was a huge gap between white-collar and blue-collar workers in the same company in terms of wage, social security, and job security before World War II. In other words “white-collar workers” and “blue-collar workers” were social statuses or social positions. The gap was severely criticized in the process of democratization after the war, and labor unions succeeded in abolishing the gap in the same company. They required employers to treat white-collar and blue-collar workers equally as members of the company. This was the establishment of the exchange between the right of being equally treated as a member of a company and obligations the worker incurs. Jun Imai calls this the establishment of company citizenship. What is important about company citizenship is that once a person gets company citizenship, that is, becomes a regular worker as a social position, he/she can enjoy the security of employment as well as social security.
Two types of people have been excluded from the company citizenship: Women and non-regular workers. Most of the female workers were expected to quit their jobs upon marriage or childbearing. Then many of the former female workers reenter the labor market after raising their children as non-regular workers, not as regular workers. Financially, however, their livelihood was secured because their husbands were regular workers with company citizenship. This is the representation of the male single breadwinner model in Japan. The Japanese welfare-employment regime was supported by this family model with the husband as a regular worker and the wife as a housewife or a non-regular worker.
Limit of the Japanese welfare-employment regime
The regime and the family model provided the Japanese with social security and the security of employment although feminists harshly criticized them because they thought the combination of the regime and the family model pushed women to the periphery of the labor markets and the public sphere.
Although the Japanese welfare-employment regime was influential during the high economic growth period, it became dysfunctional in the 1990s for several reasons. Two of them, that is, globalization and the prolonged recession made the regime inefficient.
Globalization and deregulation associated with it made the labor market more fluid and flexible resulting in the increase in the number of non-regular workers. Many Japanese companies could not afford to maintain the regime because of the prolonged recession and increased the share of non-regular workers in the labor market.
These changes triggered the increase in the share of male non-regular workers who are deprived of company citizenship. This has caused social problems because the non-regular employment has become a social position whose holders are deprived of life changes and excluded from other social spheres such as marriage. And the deprivation and exclusion stem from the widening gap between the rapidly changing reality of non-regular workers and almost unchanged institutions. To understand this we need a third building block—the theory of the relationship between global forces, local institutions, and social inequality proposed by Hans-Peter Blossfeld, Hyunjoon Park, Shin Arita, and me.
Theory of the relationship between global forces, local institutions, and social inequality
Global forces such as globalization and neo-liberalism do not directly affect social inequality in a local society. Rather, they indirectly do so via local institutions. What is important about this is that local institutions have different “inertia.” Some institutions quickly respond to global forces, while other institutions slowly respond to them or remain intact.
Applying this building block to contemporary Japan, we understand that the long-term employment practice, which is a major component of the Japanese welfare-employment regime, and the male single-breadwinner model have large inertia. It is true, for example, that the long-term employment practice has become weaker than before. However, workers in the core of the practice are still protected by the Japanese welfare-employment regime. This means that non-regular workers are still excluded from the regime. Thus they are trapped in the gap between the changing reality and unchanged institutions.