JAPAN - So-called pregnancy harassment, which involves treating female employees unfavorably because of being pregnant or having children, sometimes to the point of making them quit their jobs, has been attracting attention, especially since a recent labour federation survey showed one in every four pregnant workers were made the target of such harassment.
According to the survey conducted by the Japanese Trade Union Confederation (Rengo) in May, 81 of 316 working women who were pregnant at some point in the past, or 25.6 per cent of them, said they were subject to harassment because of being pregnant or having children.
Some respondents to the survey said they were verbally harassed after returning from maternity leave or were talked into voluntarily leaving their jobs.
For comparison, 17 per cent of working women said they were subject to sexual harassment in another survey.
The Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry is urging companies to take measures to rectify the situation as it can be a factor preventing women from advancing in the workplace, one of the pillars of the government's economic growth strategy.
"There's no job for you."
A 38-year-old nonregular worker heard these words from a boss at a vocational school in Tokyo in January at what would have been the time of her contract renewal. The school cited its "poor business performance" for not renewing her contract, but she could not see any other reason than her taking maternity leave and working shorter hours to accomodate child care.
She gave birth to her first daughter two years ago. When she returned from maternity leave in April 2012 and declined to work night hours, her boss told her, "There's no job for those who work shorter hours." Although the woman left her infant daughter in the care of her parents at their home and worked on weekends, the boss denied her request to work shorter hours.
Just after she was told her contract would not be extended, the woman was offered work at a subsidiary of the company as a part-time worker. When she decided to take the opportunity, however, she learned she was again pregnant. After she told a company official about her pregnancy, the job offer was immediately withdrawn, according to the woman.
"I will never go back there. That was outrageous," the woman said.
Contacted by The Yomiuri Shimbun, a school official said the woman left the job amicably. "We don't think there was any problem," the official said.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Law and the Child Care and Family Care Leave Law prohibit firing employees or reducing their salaries for being pregnant or taking maternity or child-rearing leave. Labor bureaus nationwide have received 3,000 or more inquiries on possible law violations each year since 2008, more than double the comparable number of 1,396 in 2004.
Pregnancy harassment has been gradually recognised in recent years as a broadly defined concept, covering various types of unfavorable treatment of pregnant women.
"Many female employees dare not speak about their problems, as they think they have created problems for their workplace because of their pregnancy," Hiromi Sugiura, researcher at the Rikkyo University's Institute of Social Welfare, said.
"The cases of violations reported and known to the public is only the tip of the iceberg."
Companies slow to act
Despite frequent reports of pregnant women being harassed at work, many companies have yet to take tangible steps to deal with the problem.
According to Fumiko Onishi, who heads the Tokyo Labor Bureau's Equal Employment Office, 60 per cent of working women quit their jobs after having their first child.
"Under such circumstances, many employers and companies have developed an ingrained belief that it's normal for female workers to leave work after having a child," Onishi said. "As a result, they don't get around to coming up with efficient measures to prevent this."
Even in cases in which a female worker was forced to resign soon after informing her boss she was pregnant, many companies try to justify their position by citing the firm's poor business performance or claiming the employee was incompetent.
However, changes are emerging. Some companies proactively encourage staff members to take child care leave and work reduced hours after their baby is born.
Kyowa Interface Science Co., a Saitama Prefecture-based company that manufactures and sells precision measuring instruments, has 30 female staff members, who account for more than half of its workforce. Taking this into consideration, Kyowa Interface allows workers child care leave, nursing care leave, reduced schedules and staggered shifts, among other options.
"Because we handle specialised devices, it takes 10 years to train our staff. So it's a big blow for the company if a worker resigns," an official of the company's administration division said.
Mami Nakano, a lawyer who has handled many cases of pregnancy harassment, said: "From a short-term cost perspective, many companies tend to believe it's better to fire a worker if they take leave from work. It is important that a company is always prepared [for changing circumstances] by establishing a framework in which work can be shared among several staff members, among other measures."