The Japanese workforce is well-educated and mostly skilled, thanks to the Japanese educational system. It grew from 66.7 million workers in 1995 to 67.8 million in 1999, of whom about 95 percent worked in urban enterprises. The rural workforce involved in farming, fishing, and forestry forms only 5 percent of the total work-force, or about 3.39 million workers. In 1999, 4.7 percent of the workforce (3.18 million workers) was unemployed, a significant increase from its 1995 rate of 3.2 percent (2.13 million).
Japan is a signatory to the International Labor Organization's conventions on workers' rights and freedoms. The Japanese Constitution also guarantees the right to form and join trade unions. Its labor laws recognize the right to organize and bargain collectively. With the exception of the military, police officers, and firefighters, all employees have the right to join unions, to bargain collectively, and to strike. Public employees may join unions, but do not have the right to strike, and their collective bargaining rights are also limited. The government determines their pay according to the recommendations of an independent body called the National Personnel Authority.
There are many unions in Japan, which operate freely. The largest is the Japanese Trade Union Confederation (JTUC), formed when several trade unions merged in 1989. In 2000, it had a membership of about 7.6 million. In 2000, about 22 percent of the workforce (12 million workers) were union members.
Japanese labor law provides for a 40-hour workweek, but the law is not usually enforced in small enterprises. It also prohibits forced or compulsory labor as well as child labor. Children under the age of 15 may not work; children over the age of 15 may be employed for non-hazardous jobs only.
Based on the recommendation of tripartite advisory councils (formed by workers, employers, and public authorities), minimum wages are set that vary from region to region and from industry to industry. On average, minimum wages range between $46 and $53 per day, which are adequate for a decent living standard for a worker and family. Generally speaking, employers usually consult with their respective unions on wage-related issues.
The labor law forbids discrimination in the work-force, though it exists in practice. The Burakumin, who are ethnically Japanese but are the offspring of the so-called outcasts of the feudal era, experience both social and employment discrimination. The labor law provides for equal pay for equal work and the right of women to work. Still, women receive less compensation than men in the same age and work groups. They are also poorly represented in managerial positions, accounting for about 9.2 percent of such jobs in 2000. Also, they form a very small portion of local government positions. Unemployment is disproportionately higher among women and foreign workers, especially undocumented ones coming from the Asian Pacific countries like China, South Korea, and Thailand, who are usually denied their labor rights and are subject to abuses. Work-related safety and health regulations are enforced by government inspectors.