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As I See It: Gov't anti-overwork proposals look likely to fall short of serious reform

The mostly darkened windows of Dentsu Inc. headquarters are seen in this Oct. 24, 2016 file photo. Dentsu Inc. office lights are turned off between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. to discourage overwork. (Mainichi)

On Feb. 1, the government's Council for the Realization of Work Style Reform, headed by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, began in-depth discussions on how to reduce the famously long work hours at Japanese companies. The public is showing a lot of interest in the issue, owing in great part to the overwork-induced suicide of 24-year-old Dentsu Inc. employee Matsuri Takahashi in December 2015.

    However, a proposal the government will present at the council's next meeting on Feb. 14 is likely to recognize a limit of 100 overtime hours per month. This begs the question: does the government truly want to end death from overwork in Japan?

    "How many people have to die before reforms are made?" asked an attorney for Takahashi's family, words aimed not just at Dentsu but also at the government.

    Under the Labor Standards Act, a regular work day is eight hours long, for a total of 40 hours per week. However, if labor and management agree, Article 36 of the act allows overtime of up to 45 hours per week, or 360 hours per year. The act has yet another escape clause: if a special condition is added to a labor-management agreement, a firm can demand unlimited overtime of its workers up to six times a year.

    Labor leaders have long called for an end to this last exception, calling it an overwork death enabler. However, the government has consistently deferred to business concerns, maintaining that doing away with the unlimited overtime clause would harm Japanese companies' growth and competitiveness. One senior Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare official told the Mainichi Shimbun, "This may be a tactless way of talking about it, but the special clause essentially allows for unlimited overtime," adding proudly, "putting limits on that (in the reforms under deliberation) will be a completely new development."

    Specifically, the government's overtime limit proposal will likely call for a maximum of an average 60 hours per month, raised to 100 hours per month during busy periods. In addition, a maximum monthly average of 80 hours of overtime over two consecutive months (or 160 hours total) is also probable. Indeed, limitless overtime appears destined for the dustbin.

    However, the labor ministry calls single month overtime exceeding 100 hours, or average monthly overtime topping 80 hours over two to six months, the "overwork death line," beyond which the danger of dying from working too much rises sharply. In other words, the government is arguing for overtime limits that scrape right up against the overwork death danger line. Let us pause for a moment to examine this.

    According to the world's first ever white paper on overwork deaths, published by the Japanese government in October last year, the surviving families of 96 people who died of neurological or cardiac conditions in fiscal 2015 were recognized as eligible for worker's accident insurance benefits (25 fewer cases than in fiscal 2014). Benefits were also granted in an additional 93 cases of suicide due to psychiatric illness (six fewer than the previous year). While the total number of deaths has declined, those are still some very high figures.

    Of the 96 who died of cardiac or neurological problems, 89 had been working at least 80 hours a month of overtime on average. Forty-nine had been working an average of at least 80 hours but less than 100 hours of monthly overtime. Among the suicide cases, 62 people had been doing average monthly overtime of at least 80 hours, with seven of these in the 80-to-100 hour range. Eighty hours is definitively the overwork death line.

    At the Feb. 1 work style reform council meeting, Japanese Trade Union Confederation (JTUC-RENGO) President Rikio Kozu said that "100 overtime hours in a month is absolutely unacceptable." On suggestions to exempt certain industries such as logistics from overtime limits, Kozu also pointed out that "only those industries will never see any reform."

    Turning back to the sad case of Matsuri Takahashi, the Mita Labor Standards Inspection Office in Tokyo confirmed that she had done about 105 hours of overtime at Dentsu in the month before she began showing symptoms of depression. In the period before taking her own life, the 24 year old also sent out a number of pained messages hinting at what was about to happen: "My body and mind are just in shreds," "I've lost all feeling except for the desire to sleep," "Life has come down to being unable to tell whether I'm working to live, or living to work."

    How do Dentsu and the Japanese government perceive Takahashi's words, some of the last she would write?

    It is extremely important for all companies to observe any new overtime limits. To do that, it is crucial to strengthen penalties imposed on violators. Under current law, firms or executives that force employees to work illegally long hours can be sentenced to "a maximum of six months in prison or fined a maximum of 300,000 yen."

    After the labor ministry raided a number of its branches following the confirmation of Takahashi's overwork death, Dentsu implemented some reforms to discourage excessive overtime, including turning off all the office lights between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. the next day. However, should Dentsu's competitors keep demanding their employees work long hours, customers are likely to switch to whichever firm will take their orders and respond to their requests no matter the time or day.

    It is unacceptable that the first Japanese firms to choose a more humane road should be punished for it. (By Taketo Hayakawa, Tokyo City News Department)

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