Having a baby? Japanese women risk losing jobs

Having a baby? Japanese women risk losing jobs
Ms Sayaka Osakabe's Matahara Net support group recently collected 8,335 signatures for a petition urging the Health and Labour Ministry to include a clause against "matahara" in Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's women's empowerment Bill.

Female workers in Japan who decide to have babies face obstacles at their workplace, including being forced to accept lower-paying jobs or having to quit.

The practice of using a woman's pregnancy or childbirth as an excuse for her dismissal, forced resignation or harassment of any kind at work has been dubbed "matahara", the shortened form of "maternity harassment".

"Matahara" has been very much in the news recently after the Supreme Court late last month invalidated a decision by the Hiroshima high court, which threw out a claim by a physical therapist that she was unfairly demoted because of her pregnancy.

The case was the first of its kind to go all the way to the Supreme Court and comes amid efforts by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to push for the empowerment of Japanese women in the economy, including getting them to occupy 30 per cent of executive positions by 2020.

The therapist started working at a hospital in Hiroshima in western Japan in 1994 and was promoted to assistant supervisor in 2004.

She became pregnant in 2008 and asked to be assigned lighter work in another department. But she was told there was no room for another supervisor in her new department and was demoted.

The woman is suing her employer for 1.7 million yen (S$19,000) in damages.

The Hiroshima district and high courts accepted her employer's claim that her demotion was not related to her pregnancy.

Under the Japanese legal system, the Supreme Court's decision will prompt the lower court to overturn its earlier ruling.

Media reports say the woman is expected to win her case eventually.

Following the Supreme Court ruling, the government was quick to state its case.

"It is illegal to terminate a person's employment or put them at a disadvantage because they are pregnant or have given birth," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told reporters.

"The government would like to cooperate with the ministries concerned to ensure this point is thoroughly understood and to offer support to workers," he said.

Under Japan's Equal Employment Opportunity Law, a woman cannot be dismissed within a year of her pregnancy or childbirth or disadvantaged in any way.

Unfortunately, the law is toothless because it does not lay down any penalties for employers who are guilty.

Under the law, female workers in Japan appear to be reasonably cared for. A woman who wants to start a family is guaranteed six weeks of maternity leave during pregnancy and eight weeks after her child is born.

Most employers do not pay their workers wages during their maternity leave but most women are able to claim maternity allowance from a health insurance society or mu-tual aid fund that comes up to two-thirds of their salary.

The problem is that many pregnant women or young mothers are seen by employers as a nuisance because of their absence from work for medical reasons or to care for infant children, and are therefore pressured to resign.

Last year, a total of 3,371 women visited government labour offices nationwide to complain about "maternity harassment" at work. The number has hovered at around 3,000 a year for the past few years.

But the actual number could well be higher.

A survey last year by the Japanese Trade Union Confederation found that about a quarter of female workers who had been pregnant said they were victims of "matahara" at their companies.

The survey also discovered that 45.7 per cent of women who experienced "matahara" had to bear it in silence as they had no one to turn to for advice or help.

Ms Sayaka Osakabe, who suffered two miscarriages as a result of "matahara" at a publisher she used to work for, set up a support group called Matahara Net this July and a website to provide a forum for the problem to be discussed.

Speaking at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan recently, she said: "The Supreme Court judgment is a big step forward, towards the prevention of maternity harassment."

Her group recently collected 8,335 signatures for a petition urging the Health and Labour Ministry to include a clause against "matahara" in Mr Abe's women's empowerment Bill.

Press reports say however that Mr Abe is expected to dissolve Parliament this week for a snap general election. If that happens, the Bill is likely to be scrapped.


This article was first published on Nov 16, 2014.
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