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Equal Employment Opportunity Law Passed in Japan, But Effect Uncertain

May 17, 1985

TOKYO (AP) _ Parliament approved Friday a law for equal employment opportunity, seven years after debate began in Japan over whether men and women should get the same treatment in the workplace.

The law passed by the Diet, the 511-seat lower house, takes effect next April 1. It will do away with laws that now ban women from working after 10 p.m. and limits their overtime.

The new law, passed earlier by the upper house, also stipulates that Japanese companies have an obligation to treat women equally, from the moment of hiring until retirement, but it stops short of penalizing those that don’t.

″Companies will probably take another look at policies relating to labor. But what kind of effect it will have - we’ll have to wait and see,″ said Yoshinori Yanaka, an official at the Labor Ministry’s Women’s Bureau.

″It’s a part of the preparations for ratification,″ he said, referring to the Treaty to Eliminate Discrimination Against Women. The treaty is on the agenda of the United Nations conference in July in Nairobi, Kenya, to mark the end of the U.N. Decade of Women.

According to the Labor Ministry, women made up 39.5 percent of Japan’s work force in 1983, the latest year for which statistics are available. And for the first time that year, more than half of working women were married.

But women still earn only 53 percent of what men’s wages are, partly because the number of women employed in less lucrative part-time jobs has gone up as the female labor force has increased.

The Labor Ministry began studying the equal opportunity law in 1978. An equal opportunity bill reached the floor of Parliament in May 1984 and the upper house passed it two months later.

Many Japanese companies now refuse to interview women for jobs in which the employee is trained for advancement to executive positions. The argument is that women, unlike men who are committed to lifetime employment with the same firm, quit after marriage or giving birth.

On Friday, officials at the Federation of Employers Association - or Nikkeiren - would not return a reporter’s phone calls.

But Hiroshi Kitamura of the federation’s Labor Management Division said on a news broadcast: ″We are not completely opposed to the law. It’s a compromise so we have to learn to work with it.″

Women’s groups and opposition parties such as the Japan Socialist Party have generally been unhappy with the new legislation, saying it removes protection without giving total equality.

The largest union federation, Sohyo, has protested that the law does not go far enough.

″It should focus more on small- and medium-scale enterprises, where 80 percent of the women work,″ said Kazuko Yamano of Sohyo’s Women’s Bureau.

Manae Kubota, a member of the upper house from the Japan Socialist Party, said the law ″isn’t what we had in mind. Compared to other countries, it’s very limited.″

She also said that cutting off special treatment for women could backfire, because women working more hours could lead to increased productivity, more exports and friction between Japan and its overseas trading partners.

″What we want is for men to work fewer hours, Ms. Kubota said. ″Women and men should be treated equally, but if everybody works a lot of overtime that could lead to trouble,″ she said.

″It’s still considered the woman’s responsibility to take care of the children, so if she’s working all the time now, who is going to manage the home? There won’t be any women’s liberation unless everyone works less.″

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