Life as an Irregular Employee

Most salaried employees in Japan who take early retirement do not retire from the labor market altogether. The national pension scheme for those in sachi's age cohort does not start until age sixty-one, leaving a large gap in income if One retires very early, as sachi did. Sachi took eleven months off after leaving azumi, as she was able to receive unemployment benefits. (this practice is common, and in Japan those who voluntarily quit their jobs still receive unemployment benefits.) After that, she went to the government employment agency (Hello work) and found a job at a dyer's, where her job was to sew yard goods. Because the working conditions were very poor, she stayed only one year and one month. In the end, as was her wont, sachi improved the place before she quit, convincing the boss to make a number of renovations to the shop.

Sachi's next job, which she has held for three years, was at a boxed lunch (bentō) factory; she started it six weeks after quitting the sewing job.15 Here she was an irregular worker, hired for ¥800 an hour on half-year contracts. She noted that there were no automatic raises, and although the irregular workers received a ¥6 increase after she complained, sachi said the pay could also go down at any time. Nevertheless she remains there: “now i think if you're going to be working in any case, you might as well be doing something where you can go home happily at the end of the day. More than pay, i am thankful for the workplace environment. I want money, but i don't want to feel miserable [mazushii kokoro]. I want to be an energetic, kind old lady! I want to be able to smile and say, 'Otsukaresama' [thank you for your hard work] at the end of the day.”16

For a half year, sachi worked eight consecutive extended day shifts (9 a.m.–6 p.m.) followed immediately by one night shift (12 a.m.–8 a.m.) In order to get enough work hours to pay into the national health and pension insurance schemes (for which are needed more than nineteen days of work and more than 170 hours in a month). After that, she dropped back to days only, but she works enough hours to continue to be eligible for insurance.17 at the most, she earns about one-fourth of her azumi income. The benefit of this job is that as long as she informs management in advance, she can take holidays of a week or even longer. Taking advantage of this possibility, she traveled to india with her elder daughter recently. This would have been impossible in her job as a regular employee at azumi.

The boxed lunch factory work is tough on the body. Sachi is in charge of cooked dishes and fried foods, and the workplace is very hot. In addition, for reasons of safety and sanitation, she must wear long pants, long boots, longsleeved shirts, a mask, and two caps. But this workplace has no harassment problems, so it is enjoyable, she noted. Sachi, because of her long years of training in a professional environment, cannot help but bring that training and Expertise to this job as well. She told me that there are some workers who do not take sanitation seriously and who break the sanitation rules. This she sees as unacceptable, so she notified the management. (recall sachi's high standards!) Now management has asked her to be the sanitation leader, and she inspects the finished products. She laughed at how easy it is for her to spot anything that shouldn't be in the boxed lunch when others just cannot see it. She remarked, “they said, 'wow, you were really something to find that,' but . . . I could see it so clearly! [Laughs.] . . . My body remembers. It's the strangest thing.”18 On her own initiative, she made a manual to explain the flow of work and all the important things to keep track of in the preparation process. She plans to stay at the boxed lunch factory until age sixty; any longer would be too much for her body to withstand.

What can we learn from sachi's work history? First, she was and is a very hard worker, as well as a clever one, always figuring out how to improve the work flow. Moreover, her leadership skills were marvelous. Although her lack of education held her back from climbing very far in the ranks, that she was able to endure as a regular worker for thirty-five years is remarkable and a testimony to her strength of character, as well as to her strong relationship with her husband.

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