Japanese companies are offering the lowest wage increases in eight years as labour talks wrap up on Wednesday, in a sign the Covid-19 pandemic is putting an end to the benefits brought on by former premier Shinzo Abe’s stimulus policies. Over the past seven years, major firms have offered pay rises of 2% or more in annual “shunto” spring wage negotiations, in a nod to government efforts to eradicate two decades of grinding deflation. Abe’s policies, dubbed “Abenomics”, targeted wages among other reforms to help reflate the economy. The country’s chronic labour shortage from a rapidly ageing population has also prodded companies to offer higher salaries to lure talent in recent years.
But the coronavirus pandemic has dealt a blow particularly to service-sector firms such as restaurants, transportation, hotels, leisure, and tourism, forcing them to prioritise job security over annual base pay increases, analysts said. “The momentum towards wage hikes has weakened. It has turned out uneven among industries and companies,” said Hisashi Yamada, senior economist at Japan Research Institute. “Wage growth won’t push up prices even though it’s still above levels that would cause deflation fears.”
The annual wage talks serve as a barometer of corporate strength and household purchasing power, both of which are needed to generate sustainable economic growth and achieve the central bank’s 2% inflation target. Many companies and labour unions have lowered or foregone base pay hikes — a key factor for determining the strength of wage gains or lack of it for full-time employees — which come on top of seniority-based pay rises.
Toyota Motor Corp, once seen a bellwether in wage talks, offered salary hikes of ¥9,200 (US$84.36) a month, up from the previous year’s offer of ¥8,600, but did not say whether base pay rose or not. Nissan Motor Co offered wage hikes worth ¥7,000, unchanged from last year. Fijitsu Ltd and other major electrical machinery makers agreed with unions to keep base pay hikes largely unchanged from the prior year’s ¥1,000 a month, domestic media reported.
In contrast, labour unions of industries hit hard by the pandemic, such as airlines, have shelved demands for base pay hikes. This has resulted in shunto results varying among industries, between those affected and unaffected by the pandemic. Some firms are shifting away from across-the-board wage hikes towards a more varied approach on remuneration. More of them are adopting merit-based wages, rather than seniority-oriented pay, to lure young talent.
The move coincides with structural changes in Japan’s labour market. About 40% of workers consist of part-time staff and contract workers, double the proportion seen in 1990, many of whom do not belong to labour unions. “In recent years unions (have) had a clear advantage over companies as they faced a labour crunch,” said Yoshiki Shinke, chief economist at Dai-ichi Life Research Institute. “The pandemic has changed all that, forcing employers and labour unions to prioritise job security over pay increase.”