Japan: Hakenmura, the Temp Workers Village

Over 300 people spent their nights between New Year`s Eve and the 5th of January in a tent camp stationed at Hibiya Park in central Tôkyô, referred to as 年越し派遣村 (toshikoshi hakenmura, or lit. “New Year's Village for Temporary Workers”). The people staying in Hakenmura were temporary workers (派遣社員, haken shain): Japanese men and women of various ages, with working experience in several fields, who saw their contracts as temporary workers annulled in the last months (according to some estimates between last October and this March, 85,012 temp workers have been laid off), in part because of the effects of the global financial crisis, and in part because of bad administration of the legal system that governs temporary work [ja].

The causes mentioned above are those most often quoted by the traditional Japanese media. Some bloggers have highlighted others, however, pointing out that the high commission paid by companies to temp agencies should also be considered. Blogger Idaten Tasuke (韋駄天太助), for example, explaining the precarious conditions upon which the temp work system is based, stresses how Japanese media have pointed the finger at the social system without considering other elements that may be crucial in understanding the “laid-off temp workers” issue:


Every day the media reports news about the laying off of temporary workers. Since it is a pressing problem I`d like them to cover it properly – it is very difficult to watch people younger than myself without places to live, descending to the level of living on the street. However, I have some doubts as to whether the media are seriously tackling this problem.



The reason I have this uncomfortable feeling about the media is that, although they are very critical toward the companies that annulled the contracts (and I agree with that), I wonder why they don't also raise questions about the responsibility of the temporary work agencies?
(Is it perhaps only the case of the sources I consulted?)
The companies draw up a contract with those agencies, but they have no contract with the individual temporary workers.
It is the temp worker agency that decides how much Mr. A will be payed per hour, and the company pays personnel expenses to the temp agency for the time worked, according to a contract with that agency.



The rate of the agencies is limited to that and, in simple terms, what they actually do is just send temporary workers to the companies.
Without any previous training or anything.
Doing nothing more than this (?), as long as the temp workers are sent to the companies, their turnover grows every day (even as they sleep). This is the system.
If companies are told not to fire temp workers, then they will simply not call on temp workers.
So why is it that this bonanza business — a highly lucrative business model, in fact — does not receive any criticism?
The reason why temp workers are employed is not because they are cheap (in fact they aren`t cheap at all) but, frankly, because their contract can be annulled at any time.



When business is prospering, this delicate triangle [company/temp work agency/temp worker] works well.
However, this time around problems arose because many contracts were annulled all at the same time, and the temp work agencies are not able to introduce these workers to other companies.
I believe that if there is a lot of demand for a safety net, then it must be demanded of the temp work agencies, not of the companies. But the voices I've heard from the media have only questioned the social responsibility of temp agencies.

Similarly, Shino Kichi (篠キチ), basing his remarks on his past experience as a temporary worker, casts doubt on the nature of the debate that has arisen recently over the “temporary workers” issue:


This is the first time that have I seen the “temp workers” issue so debated. I have the feeling that the commission fee for the agencies is quite high.
I don`t know about the cases of Toyota or Canon but, when I was hired as temporary staff, the agency used to get around the 35-40% [of the money that the company pays for the employment of a temp worker]. […] Why don`t they debate reducing that deduction [from the worker`s fee] ?

The night of the 1st January 2009 @ Hakenmura

Blogger at Canada de Nihongo (カナダで日本語) takes the reports on the life at the Hakenmura Village during the holidays as a starting point to emphasize the political responsibilities of those who let all this happen.


As expected, about 300 people who had their contracts as temp workers annulled gathered in “New Year's Village for Temporary Workers” at Hibiya Park over New Year's Eve: this was double than what they had imagined. Having prepared food for 200 people, [the organizers] realized that they didn't have enough, and sure enough, just as the facility at Hibiya Park was about to reach its limit, the government was apparently forced to open a lecture hall of the nearby Ministry of Health and Labor.



The government's late response stood out in this case, but if it had kept silent, I doubt the Ministry of Health and Labor would have opened the lecture hall — quite the contrary, they probably would haven't taken any measure [to deal with the situation] at all. Although the temp workers have become victims of the disastrous policy of the party in power [the Liberal Democratic Party], it was a good example demonstrating how the ruling party secretly considers the “laying off of temp workers” as somebody else`s problem.

At the “New Year's Village for Temporary Workers” 200 volunteers helped the organizers with the everyday management of the community, distributing food to the refugees or arranging for them accommodation for the night, etc. One of those volunteers recorded a diary of those days (with many pictures attached) at Tone Nikki (とね日記). On the 2nd of January he jotted down his personal impressions regarding coverage of the situation in the village by the Japanese media.

今日は民主党の菅直人さんもお見えになり、かなり長い時間を使って村民と直接話をしたり、メディアのインタビューに答えていた。[…] メディアは菅さんや「派遣村の村長」の湯浅さんなど有名人の撮影がメインだ。もっと村民や「委員」、ボランティアの状況をレポートすればよいのにと思った。カメラマンしか来ておらず、レポーターが来ていないからだと僕は思った。

Today Mr. Naoto Kan of Minshutô [the Democratic Party of Japan] came [to the Village] and he spent here many hours talking directly with the refugees, giving interviews to the press, etc. […] The media`s interest was mainly with Mr. Kan or Mr. Yuasa (the Chief of the Village), as well as with other personalities. I thought that they should have reported much more on the refugees and on the “members of the committee”, as well as on the volunteers` activity. Probably this was because only cameramen came; no reporters were present.

Further on in the diary from that day, the volunteer reported a conversation with a young man, a friend of a Mr. T (a refugee he used to take care of), who explained to him the harsh situation of those who are in difficult circumstances, especially women.


I also spoke with a young guy (around 30?), an acquaintance of Mr. T`s. After he was fired, and following some negotiations, he apparently was able to get his job back, but he nonetheless had the experience of being an internet café refugee. According to Mr. T, there are many young women in the same situation; many of them either end up working in the sex industry or have their own private business. The women who cannot do that kind of job just spend the night in McDonald`s restaurants or in Internet cafes. And when I said that those women should go back to their families instead of living these lives, he explained me that “They are people who cannot return. Most of them have issues [in their background that prevent them from returning].” I became speechless… In that case, they have no escape.
Flickr user id:Photowalker uploaded numerous interesting photos of Hakenmura and the temp workers protest at his personal page.


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