The Employment Rights of Repeatedly Renewed Private Sector Contract Workers

by Steve van Dresser

I Background.

Many companies have begun hiring contract workers to do work previously done by regular "lifelong" employees. For Japanese and foreigners alike, working under contract can be intimidating. The uncertainty regarding future employment prospects can be stressful, to say the least. There is a body of law, however, which protects the employment security of so-called temporary workers. It may be useful to have some general idea of contract worker rights.

Unlike in the United States and in many other countries, in Japan a job is a constitutionally protected right. The Japanese constitution (Article 27) states that, "All people have the right and the obligation to work.", and further (Article 28), "The right of workers to organize and to bargain and act collectively is guaranteed". The courts have ruled that the right to work can be taken from a worker under a very limited number of circumstances, each of which is well defined. These are(1):


Any dismissal outside of the above is considered to be an "abusive dismissal", an abuse of right, not allowed under the law.

II On what basis can a company terminate an employee?

III Other Considerations

In addition to the limitations on terminations outlined above, even more restrictive rules apply when dealing with members of labor unions. Actions by employers to impede union activities or penalize employees for union participation are also illegal. "Dismissals of workers because they are union members, their having engaged in proper union activities, or similar reasons are invalid as violations of the public policy contained in the guarantee of organizational and other rights in Article 28 of the Constitution."(7)

An initial contract offering, a job offer, defines the labor relationship. Subsequent erosion of benefits and conditions don't necessarily void the original relationship. What you are first told may have more weight than what you are subsequently offered.

Japanese court cases take a long time to process. Foreigners who don't have a right to remain in Japan, may not be able to effectively assert their employment rights. For those who can fight, often the courts will issue preliminary rulings which force employers to continue salaries and benefits until final resolution. Many cases are settled "out of court" after such preliminary rulings.

Japanese courts don't always reach the same conclusions courts would reach in other countries. Often, results strain the imagination of what might seem logical in other circumstances. Sometimes it will seem that a court has bent the rules beyond all possibility to reach a conclusion the judge has already decided on. Invisible relationships do exist between Japanese governmental institutions and corporate institutions and this applies to courts as much as to parliamentary bodies.

1. Most of the information relating to temporary workers is from Japanese Labor Law, by Kazuo Sugeno, translated by Leo Kanowitz, University of Washington Press, 1992

2. Sugeno, 1992, p. 154

3. Sugeno,1992, p. 156 referring to:

Yakigumi, Osaka High Court, January 27, 1960

Aisan Kogyo, Nagoya District Court, February 22, 1963

Toshiba Yanagimachi Kojo, Yokohama District Court, April 24, 1963

Mitsubishi Zosen, Nagasaki District Court, June 12, 1963

Toshiba Yanagimachi Kojo, Supreme Court, First Petty Bench, July 22, 1974

Tokyo High Court September 30, 1970, 606 Judgements 3

4. Sugeno, 1992, p. 156  referring to

Hitachi Medeiko, Supreme Court, First Petty Bench, December 4, 1986

5. a representative case includes

Fuyo Business Service, Nagano District Court, Matsumoto Branch, March 29, 1996

6. Sanyo Denki Electric Appliances, Osaka District Court, October 22, 1991

(translated from Kazuo Sugeno Japanese Labor Law of a later date, publication date unknown)

7. Sugeno, 1992, p. 401 referring to

Trade Union Law, Articles 7 and 27

The article was published in the December issue of "The PALE Journal of Professional Issues" of the Professionalism, Administration, and Leadership in Education Special Interest Group of the Japan Association for Language Teaching (JALT). This page published on January 21, 1999