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Japan's cottage workers -- vital cogs in big machine

Hiroko Nakajima is a tiny but vital cog in the Japanese industrial machine. But giant enterprises like Nissan Motors and Matsushita Electric dominate world markets (and newspaper headlines) with a flood of products, and the housewife's contribution goes almost unnoticed.

Yet without it, the Japanese economic miracle would not have been the same.

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Mrs. Nakajima is one of an army of home workers at the beck and call of the big name companies -- a sharp contrast between a cramped living-room-cum-workshop and the glittering marble corporate headquarters on Tokyo's golden Ginza.

Whether producing finished goods or one tiny component, these cottage industries are essential: Their low wages and production costs allow many major manufacturers to remain price competitive in world markets.

The Japanese government, however, is not happy with the conditions under which Mrs. Nakajima and others have to operate. A home industry work law was enacted in 1970, but the Labor Ministry agrees it is not working as well as it should.

Kiyoko Fujii, director of the ministry's home industry work office, estimates there are bout 1.4 million such workers at present. She adds that 90 percent of them are women.

The ministry's latest survey found the average working day for women was 6.3 hours, while men had their noses to the proverbial grindstone for an average 9.5 hours a day. The women were earning only 314 yen ($1.40) an hour, and the men got 607 yen ($2.70) on average.

The Labor Ministry points out that pay rates for women in particular compare badly with the average 802 yen ($3.56) an hour paid to workers employed by small manufacturing concerns (those with up to 29 employees), and even for part-timers in major firms at 447 yen ($1.98) an hour.

Now that her one child has grown up and left home, Mrs. Nakajima has converted a six-by-four-foot bedroom into a workshop. There she sews scarfs for a well-known brand-name company.

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"Yet, the fact is the rate for sewing a single scarf hasn't increased for the past 20 years," she says.

"With inflation, things have got tighter for the family. With my child away at school, I wanted to get a job, full or part time.

"But it was very difficult. There isn't much demand for middle-aged women. I didn't have any particular qualifications, and so I ended up accepting home work.

"It doesn't pay much, but it's better than nothing."

Home workers are turning out a wide variety of men's and women's clothing, shoes, gloves, purses, umbrellas, foodstuffs, fireworks, chopsticks, paper bags, bamboo crafts, bead curtains, radio and television parts, car components, and presswork. The list, in fact, is virtually endless.

Ms. Fujii claims many home workers are being exploited and cheated by unscrupulous businessmen.

"The fact is, these cottage industries have supported the base of Japan's rapid economic development. And yet in most cases they don't even have the protection of a guaranteed minimum wage."

The Labor Ministry has tried to stop exploitation by providing home workers with a work log to record details of their job contracts. But it estimates only about 70 percent so far possess the logs.

Another frequent complaint is that home workers are often required to operate dangerous machines and use harmful organic solutions that would be banned in ordinary factories under strict safety rules.

It's difficult to monitor every single home operation, so the ministry is stressing worker education and a campaign to persuade them to subscribe to labor accident compensation insurance.

But one official admits: "It isn't easy. The economy has been tight for years, and there are far more women who want to work at home than there is available work. That makes it easier for exploitation and slave wages to flourish."

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