Labor

How to paint 50,000+ miles of lines

Without white and yellow lines on streets and roads, we wouldn't know where the lanes are, or where to turn or stop or walk, etc. Car accidents would be much more frequent, many with fatalities.

A specialized sector of the construction industry paints lane markings on roads. One company in Michigan, PK Contracting, estimates that one worker paints about 400,000 ft (122,000 m) of lines every day. Over the 6-month construction season, the company stripes and re-stripes about 50,000 mi (80,500 km) of roads. Put those markings end-to-end and you could cross America 16 times.

Women workers united in the 1800s

The city of Lowell, Massachusetts, was famous for its textile mills during the Industrial Revolution. In the 1830s, around 8,000 women worked at the mills. The working conditions were terrible. The air inside the mills was full of dust. Women worked 13 or 14 hours a day for very low pay.

In 1834, the mill owners decided to pay the women even less. The women were angry and joined together to fight the owners. They went on strike (refused to go to work) until they got their wages back. But the owners wouldn’t agree, and the women had to go back to work. 

The women kept fighting for better pay and working conditions for the next few years. They never won, but they were the first women's union in the country and they inspired many other workers across the country to organize. At a time when American women couldn’t even vote, the Lowell textile workers showed the world how strong women can be when they join together.

The gig economy and labor rights

According to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, a report studying freelancers published by consulting firm Mackenzie said that the gig economy has done away with workers’ rights achieved through decades of activism and legislation. Mackenzie concluded that freelancers face labor conditions similar to those of workers before the Industrial Revolution.

The advantage for employers is clear, as working with freelancers offers companies managerial flexibility. They pay for the services of a person as if that person were an entire company, without any obligation to provide social benefits or fulfill labor laws. It turns the employer–employee relationship into a customer–supplier one, which can be very unequal.

A report by the Upwork and Freelancers Union forecasts that by 2027, some 50% of all U.S. workers will be freelancers. Mackenzie estimates that the current proportion is around 20-30%, which includes people who supplement their income through freelance work.

Japan's demographic changes

Japan is internationalisingand this process is rapidly accelerating. The driving force is demographic change. Japan’s population is ageing rapidly and shrinking. Add in other factors, including never-before-seen levels of foreign tourism, plus massive preparations for the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics, and the result is a nation that desperately needs more workers to fill jobs. 

Japan has been aware of this approaching demographic crisis for decades, but because successive governments have been reluctant to take major steps, the problem has become more urgent. 

New policy on foreign workers

Japan's Cabinet has approved a draft bill that would allow the entry of more foreign blue-collar workers as the country's rapidly aging population faces labor shortages.

The bill is a major revision of Japan's policy on foreign labor. The country has long resisted accepting foreign workers, except for doctors, teachers and others in highly skilled fields. The proposed legislation would create two new visa categories for foreigners employed in more than a dozen sectors facing labor shortages, such as nursing, farming, construction and services.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe denied that the new policy means Japan is opening its doors to immigrants, to reassure his nationalist supporters. Opponents are concerned about crime and jobs taken away from Japanese, while proponents say foreign workers are indispensable in sectors facing labor shortages.

Declining productivity growth

Productivity growth has slowed since 2004, and nobody is sure why.

Certainly, technology has done its job. In the wake of downsizing, budget cuts, re-engineering and outsourcing, it has filled in the gaps at company after company. As a result, supply chains are efficient and lean, the financial services industry is automated and manufacturing processes are flexible. 

One theory that may explain declining productivity growth has been advanced by management consultancy McKinsey & Company, which believes that companies have finally cut the non-complex transactional positions that benefit from productivity-stimulating technology. All that's left are complicated and nuanced jobs requiring experience, expertise, judgment, interaction and collaboration—or tacit knowledge. Increasing productivity for employees whose jobs can't be automated has thus far proven to be a challenge for software developers.

Blue-collar suits take off

When asked to imagine a typical image of white-collar workers in Japan, salarymen in suits may come to mind. On the flip side, blue collar workers in "work wear" tend to be associated with less flattering stereotypes, dubbed the “3K”—kitsui (demanding), kitanai (dirty) and kiken (dangerous) in Japanese.

Work wear that looks exactly like a business suit, developed by a Tokyo-based plumbing firm, might be helping to improve the image of blue-collar workers. It has been proving popular recently among people in various industries, ranging from waste collection and building maintenance to agriculture.

Too many tourists in Japan

In 2016 the Japanese government set ambitious targets for foreign visitors as a way to generate economic growth as the population ages and shrinks. The government is on track to reach its goal of 40 million visitors by 2020, when Tokyo will host the Olympics.

But the rapid growth has brought problems, most obviously a shortage of labour. Relatively few Japanese are able to converse smoothly in English or other foreign languages. Most companies rely on point-sheets, translation apps or telephone services to communicate with guests.

There are cultural barriers, too. Shizue Usui, the head of Nikko’s association of okami—female hosts at inns—says they tend to think “tradition should be maintained.” That often boils down to rigid rules about check-in, meal times and other services.

Japan moves towards labour reform

Japan's lower house on May 31 approved controversial labour reforms that the government has defended as necessary to boost the economy. But, critics warn could result in more death by overwork. The legislation would scrap hourly overtime pay for some employees, while setting overtime caps for others at an annual limit of 360 hours for normal cases, and up to 720 hours for "temporary" and "special" cases. 

The government says the measures will boost efficiency and equality, and they form a key plank of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's "Abenomics" policy to kickstart the country's sluggish economy. The reform's key feature is letting Japan's corporate sector hire select highly paid professionals, such as currency traders and consultants, on contracts which include no overtime pay. The category only applies to those who earn at least 10.75 million yen ($100,000USD) annually, with employers required to seek the consent of professionals involved.

Possible wage hikes in Japan

Japan’s job market is the tightest it’s been in more than 40 years, giving leverage to labor unions pressing for bigger pay hikes at annual wage negotiations and raising prospects for higher consumer spending and inflation.

The jobs-to-applicants ratio rose to 1.59 in December from 1.56, the highest since January 1974, labor ministry data showed. That means there were nearly 1.6 jobs for every applicant.

Still, many firms remain very reluctant to commit to a hike in fixed costs like wages. A Reuters survey last month showed that two-thirds of Japanese companies think the government’s push to raise wages by 3 percent is a tall order.