A little under three years before the Tokyo 2020 Games opening ceremony, a merciless venue construction schedule has converged with a persistent labor shortage to create fearsome working conditions and spark questions about the government's decision to leave the building industry out of its new cap on overtime hours.
The problem was brought into harsh relief with the April suicide of a 23-year-old foreman working on the new National Stadium -- the 2020 Games' main venue -- after logging nearly 200 hours of overtime in a single month. Meanwhile, the Olympic and Paralympic building rush continues apace, prompting one industry insider to comment, "While we understand the need to improve working conditions, the current situation makes doing so impossible."
On July 28, Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike's Tomin First no Kai (Tokyoites First party) held closed hearings with building industry figures, at which Hitoshi Takahashi, vice chairman of an association of Tokyo-based demolition firms, declared, "If construction is resulting in people's suicides from overwork, I want to see the project frozen."
The 23-year-old foreman who died in April had worked for a Tokyo-area public works company, and had overseen ground reinforcement at the new National Stadium site from December 2016. In July this year, his parents applied to have the man's suicide recognized as work-related, noting that their son had far exceeded the so-called "overwork death danger line" of 80 overtime hours per month, and claiming that this had caused the psychological problems that led to his death.
Regarding the problem of overwork, Takahashi told the Mainichi Shimbun that his comment at the Tomin First hearings was his personal opinion. At the same time, he is worried about the March 2020 target for completing a second Tokyo ring road.
"The road construction schedule looks very tough," he said.
The No. 2 ring road will connect Olympic and Paralympic facilities including the athletes' village and sporting venues with central Tokyo, and part of it is set to go straight through the spot where the Tsukiji wholesale market now stands. The delay in the market's move to the capital's Toyosu area has put a considerable strain on the timetable to demolish the old market and finish the new roadway.
Meanwhile, with the Tokyo Metropolitan Government dropping publicly posted construction contract value estimates in favor of an open bidding system, Takahashi told the Mainichi that "price competition (among building firms) is fierce, and you end up with unfair pricing. Even if firms want to implement labor reforms like a guaranteed two days off per week, they can't. So, construction doesn't attract young people."
According to a study by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, the number of workers in the construction industry dropped 12 percent between 2006 and 2016, to about 4.95 million. Meanwhile, a 2016 Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism survey found that just 11 percent of construction firm employees were getting two days off per week. Some 40 percent reported having only Sundays off. The ministry concluded that improving working conditions would be difficult if left up to contractors. That being the case, the ministry urged municipal governments and the private sector to better conditions by embedding two days off per week in project schedules, and by blocking access to project sites on those two days.
The earliest completion date scheduled for venues being built for the 2020 Games is March 2019. However, most venue projects are still at the foundation-laying stage.
An employee of one subcontractor on a venue project told the Mainichi, "It's busy, but it's the same everywhere. My boss says that unless we change conditions starting with this work site, nothing will change in other places." A secondary subcontractor commented, "There aren't enough cranes, and tasks they perform are being foisted on the workers." He added that it takes him about an hour to drive to the site, arriving at just past 6 a.m. each day. After work winds down, he drives back to his company's offices. The only day off is Sunday, and he has to work on Saturdays and even national holidays.
"I'm going to fall apart if things keep on like this," he said, his head drooping.
Shibaura Institute of Technology professor of construction and production technologies Hirotake Kanisawa said of the building sector's long working hours, "In projects with multiple layers of subcontractors, those in weak positions lower in the structure must obey those higher up. There are some individuals who aren't even seen as 'employees,' and there's an atmosphere on-site that they have to work without any days off and under very hard conditions.
"When the construction schedule is tight, then pay for overtime hours and working on holidays should be added into the project price. Firms doing public works projects should be monitored to make sure they aren't imposing that burden on subcontractors," Kanisawa continued.
The government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is set to present a "working-style reform" bill to this autumn's extraordinary Diet session, including a new 100-hour cap on monthly overtime hours. If the revisions to the Labor Standards Act are passed, they are expected to take effect as soon as April 1, 2019, after a period to familiarize people with the new rules. However, even after the overtime limit goes into force, the construction industry will be exempt from it for five years.
"This exemption should be shortened by as much as possible, and (the construction sector) brought into line with other occupations," said Satoshi Kudo, chairman of the Japan Federation of Basic Industry Worker's Unions, which includes building industry unions.
According to the infrastructure ministry, demand for workers stemming from the Great East Japan Earthquake recovery effort has reversed the once prevailing sense that the construction industry was stuck in the doldrums. The labor shortfall hit a peak in the summer of 2013, but is worsening once more as Tokyo 2020 projects and a redevelopment boom in the capital soak up workers. Building firms say they are bringing workers into Tokyo from regional Japan, and relying more on foreign labor as well.
Meanwhile, the number of confirmed overwork-induced suicides and attempted suicides in the construction sector hit 16 last fiscal year -- the second-highest by industry -- according to a Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare study.
The Shinjuku Labor Standards Inspection Office started on-site monitoring of the new National Stadium building site on July 19 this year. The prime contractor on the project is major construction firm Taisei Corp., but the inspectors will be making sure those employed by the some 800 subcontractors on the site aren't working illegal levels of overtime.