In Japan, the government claims it wants a society where women in the workplace can “shine,” while simultaneously also telling women they should have more children to arrest the country’s population decline. The government surely tells itself (and tries to persuade the world) that it has a sufficient legal regime to allow both of these goals to be simultaneously pursued.
Indeed, there are laws providing (1) time off for prenatal care, (2) maternity leave, and (3) childcare leave (for either parent) as well as laws specifically (4) prohibiting disadvantageous treatment of women relating to their pregnancy or childbirth. It all looks great on paper.
Yet, the situation of working mothers (and mothers-to-be) remains difficult, even tragic, in many cases. The following are, sadly, just a handful of the many cases where lack of support and understanding of mothers and or mothers-to-be in the workplace shows how poorly corporate Japan does when it comes to supporting and valuing working mothers.
More than a lack of support…deliberate sabotage
Mother A, a clerical worker near the end of her second one-year employment contract, was threatening to miscarry in her 11th week of pregnancy. Her doctor ordered her to stay at home on bed rest for two weeks. Her supervisor visited her at home, but rather than showing concern for her, told her that if she did not return to work right away, it would be impossible for the company to renew her current employment contract. She reluctantly returned to work and suffered a miscarriage. Her supervisor suggested that she should concentrate on her job for a few years before again considering starting her family.
Mother B, a teacher at a language school, was unable to find a childcare placement for her baby at the end of her childcare leave and asked if she could work part-time for a while. Her school insisted that in order to do this, she would have to agree to change her employment status from regular employee to contract employee. She agreed. At the end of her one year contract, the school notified her that they would not offer her a further contract.
Mother C, a physical therapist whose job involves making house calls on patients found the house calls too physically demanding in the late stages of her pregnancy and asked to be placed on lighter duties, something she is legally entitled to under Labor Standards Act Art 65(3). Her employer agreed to re-assign her to in-hospital duties but told her she would have to be demoted from her current manager-level job as a result. When she returned from her maternity and childcare leave, she learned that the hospital has no intention of reinstating her to her earlier manager-level position, even though she had understood her change of status to be a temporary one related to her pregnancy.
These and other forms of discrimination against pregnant women or working mothers have a name in Japan: maternity harassment (mata-hara).
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