By Oscar Johnson
Finding the right Japanese company can be like deciphering a kanji-written job contract or navigating the peculiarities of local corporate culture. It's especially so for newcomers. Headhunters can help make first contact but once you're in you're on you own. There is, however, another alternative: a foreigner-friendly temp agency.
An established agency can get your foot in the door of the IT, editing, translating and other industries without getting it shackled. It can handle anything from pension and insurance payments to being a workplace advocate. As a temporary worker you're employed and paid by the agency and dispatched to a company. Jobs are often full time and though temporary in name can last years. Some temp agency will even have an agent accompany you on the job interview. If hired, you'll report and answer directly to the company like regular staff.
Of course, nothing short of independent wealth beats the security of a permanent job. It's especially true for those of us who have traded our footloose freedom for a trip to the altar - and the maternity ward. Along with this and other drawbacks, however, temping in Japan offers benefits that may still give you pause.
Money is one. Most temp jobs, especially those requiring a native foreign tongue, pay nominally more than their permanent counterparts. So says one temp-agency insider (who admittedly swapped the freedom of his own temp status for the stability of a permanent contract). This is due in part, he said, to a "language allowance" many Japanese companies earmark for hiring such workers - even if they're not bilingual.
Perhaps the most practical draw, however, is the flexibility temping offers the unsure. You may be able to choose a shorter contract just to test the waters or a temp-to-hire agreement that allows you and the company to later go for the long haul if the courtship was successful. If you ink a permanent contract with the firm the agency is out of the equation - no harm done.
Shelter from Japan's culture of excessive overtime is another benefit of temping. When a good agency has your back it will ensure you get that extra 25 percent in wages the law says you deserve for every hour you work over 40 in a week. The obligatory overtime written in permanent-job contracts and native psyches alike comes at no extra charge to the company. Not so for temps. To avoid the expense, you'll likely be told to avoid overtime. This even includes the deferential and quirky custom of sticking around to look busy until the boss decides to leave.
Of course, there are also perks to being a permanent employee you may never see as a temp. Not least of which is that company and colleagues alike may not regard you as part of the team. (After all, you do get to leave before the boss.) You may be excluded from key staff meetings; and if you're looking to build your skills with company training forget it. Why should the firm waste training on an employee who, regardless of intent or expressed desire, is explicitly contracted not to stick around?
Temp workers may escape unpaid overtime, but holiday pay eludes them. When the workplace is shuttered on national holidays you'll either forfeit a day's pay or a day of accrued vacation time better spent when you decide a weekend isn't long enough. That venerable tradition whereby employers act as guarantors for employees renting apartments - an essential asset for gaijin - is also out of reach. Neither the company nor the temp agency will likely bother taking such risks for a temp worker.
Employee unions are definitely off limits. Remember, technically you're not an employee - you work for the temp agency. In Japan, most unions play the passive role of pacifying employees with perks. This means that as a temp hire you'll be ineligible for discounts at hotels, spas, theme parks and elsewhere. And if you happen to be at a firm with a union taking a rare stand in a labor dispute, no matter how it affects your job, you can't join the fray. (This could be a blessing as well as a curse.) In fact, you and other temps there could be part of a company strategy to circumvent the issue.
Don't be surprised. Like the agencies, which profit and pay wages, a share of pension and insurance for temp staff from set fees they charge companies, these firms also have their motives. Temp workers require less investment, commitment and attention than salaried staff. For small- to mid-sized companies that crave skill sets common to foreigners it can be an ideal alternative to hiring staffers that may someday return home. Some companies simply prefer that a brand-name temp agency with Japanese contacts handle foreign hires; it's a great way to get the gaijin employees they need while staying well within their cultural comfort zone.
So, temp agencies and the companies that use them know what they want. Why not consider if temping can help you attain your job or career goals?