The Politics of Balancing Flexibility and Equality: A Comparison of Recent Equal Pay Reforms in Germany and Japan

Heinrich, Steffen GND

In Germany and Japan, like in most OECD countries, the equal pay for equal work principle and other regulations related to equal treatment have been strengthened recently through reforms. These have been justified and promoted as measures to address gender wage gaps as well as discriminatory practices regarding non-standard workers. Yet, observers remain sceptical as to whether these reforms will be effective. Previous research has argued that Germany and Japan as “socially conservative welfare states” (Gottfried and O’Reilly 2002) face particular institutional and value-related obstacles for achieving equal treatment in practice. This paper argues that, while these factors remain important, gaps between policy output and persisting inequalities are increasingly the result of a strategically motivated politics of balancing. Policymakers in both countries use existing institutions such as collective bargaining and labour-management consultations to balance conflicting policy goals, i.e. improving equal treatment and maintaining employment flexibility, which crucially relies on differentiated treatment of workers by, for example, distinguishing between standard and non-standard workers. By resorting to strategies of balancing policymakers hope to console both objectives while mitigating the political risks of controversial structural reform.