In an effort to combat decades of deflation and stagnant wage growth, the labor ministry panel in Japan is preparing to unveil its annual average minimum wage proposal. The burning question on everyone’s mind is whether this proposal will surpass ¥1,000, signifying a significant milestone in the country’s economic progress. While this figure has a symbolic implication, a more pressing concern is whether the momentum for wage hikes, experienced during the recent spring labor-management negotiations, will persist or fizzle out.
Economists are cautiously optimistic about the labor ministry panel’s recommendation, hoping for a minimum wage figure above ¥1,000. The spring labor-management negotiations, also known as shuntо̄, resulted in the most substantial average wage gains in decades, marking a 30-year high with a 3.58% pay raise. Furthermore, the ongoing inflationary pressures have compelled companies to increase wages to offset rising import costs for both employees and consumers alike.
The Japanese government, under Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s leadership, is targeting an average hourly minimum wage of ¥1,000 as part of its economic policy guidelines. Following this goal, the labor ministry panel is expected to propose an increase to the ¥1,000 benchmark. Achieving this objective would require another record hike of more than 4% from the previous year’s minimum wage of ¥961.
However, the prospect of a substantial increase in the minimum wage raises concerns among smaller businesses. The Japan Chamber of Commerce and Industry (JCCI) and other major lobbying bodies representing small and midsize firms have urged that any wage hike should be based on economic data and statistics, rather than purely political considerations. These businesses are still grappling with the impact of higher energy and commodity prices.
During a recent labor ministry panel meeting involving representatives from both labor and management, reaching a consensus on the level of wage increase proved challenging. The management side did not agree with the specific figure proposed by the labor representatives. Nonetheless, the ministry’s minimum wage panel will establish a rough target for hourly wage increases, which will subsequently inform the minimum wage decisions made by each prefecture in October.
Despite the challenges posed by rising import costs, many firms have been able to mitigate these effects by raising prices for their products and services. A survey conducted by the JCCI targeting small and midsize firms revealed that 42.4% of respondents favored raising the minimum wage this year, while a combined 33.7% believed the rate should remain the same or be lowered.
Moreover, the post-pandemic recovery in Japan has resulted in more companies paying higher wages than the minimum level for part-time workers, as labor shortages threaten to disrupt operations. This trend suggests that even a ¥1,000 hourly wage might not be sufficient to attract and retain workers effectively.
Despite differing opinions on the timing of wage hikes and productivity improvements, there is a general consensus that raising the minimum wage to ¥1,000 is essential in the current labor market conditions. However, some experts caution against setting a specific long-term target, like ¥1,500, due to the uncertainties surrounding the economic situation.
Instead, adopting a relative target approach similar to the UK’s Low Pay Commission, which aims to achieve two-thirds of median hourly earnings by 2024, may be more prudent. Such a relative target would be more adaptable to economic growth and would also serve as a sound social policy.
The labor ministry panel’s proposal for an average minimum wage above ¥1,000 is awaited with anticipation. While reaching this symbolic milestone is essential, the real challenge lies in sustaining the momentum for wage hikes and addressing the economic uncertainties in the future. Striking a balance between wage increases and business viability remains a critical task for policymakers and stakeholders in Japan.