TOKYO (REUTERS) – When Mr Riku Omori’s pay at his regular job was slashed by a third, he found temporary work delivering fried chicken and Thai food on his bike on the streets of Kawasaki, south of Tokyo, as a way to supplement his reduced earnings.

The extra 100,000 yen (S$1,000) 26-year-old Omori gets a month helps support his wife and newborn son, which would have been difficult on the 160,000 yen he takes home monthly from his main job at a moving services company.

But it adds a level of financial uncertainty that makes week-to-week living in hard Japan, an affluent nation otherwise well regarded for its egalitarianism.

“The main issue about being freelance is family worries. Your wage will go to nothing if there’s no work,” said Mr Omori, adding that he would have preferred working for a single employer that guarantees a minimum income.

Mr Omori is among a hard-to-track group of people who take up freelance work to make ends meet, often doing jobs that fall outside the scope of the labour laws that guarantee a minimum wage and social security.

This work ranges from meal delivery and reception work at discount hotels to music teaching, futon sales and toilet maintenance in a country where lifetime employment was once a norm.

The emergence of the freelance class poses a challenge to Prime Minister Fumio Kishida who has pledged to redistribute wealth through wage hikes, which have up until now eluded Japan despite a chronic labour shortage.

Japan’s most recent jobless rate of 2.6 per cent in July was among the lowest in 38 member nations of the Organisation of Economic Cooperation Development (OECD), slightly above rates reported by Switzerland and Denmark recently.

About 38 per cent of the 57.1 million employed workers in the world’s third-largest economy were temporary employees, government data showed, who do not enjoy the same benefits as those on permanent contracts.

Curbing costs

As the economy slows, firms are cutting costs by filling openings with low-paid or gig workers, instead of higher paid permanent employees, analysts and freelance workers say.

“There will be more and more people who can’t get by on their wage even though they’re employed,” said Mr Toshiaki Tsuchiya, 46, a founding member of a freelance labour union.

More people will do side gigs that provide little of the security and stability that regular employment brings, added Mr Tsuchiya, who earns about a fifth of his income delivering food in his extra hours.

“They’ll have no choice but to work like workers.”