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Quotas mulled to counter gov't padding of disabled workforce figures

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, center, and health minister Katsunobu Kato, right, attend a meeting of ministers discussing how to respond to the padding of disabled workers, at the prime minister's office in central Tokyo on Aug. 28, 2018. (Mainichi)

The growing scandal of central government bodies inflating their disabled workforce figures above the reality has shed light on the need for a thorough review of how national bureaucrats ended up breaking regulations. Measures must also quickly be introduced so bodies meet the legal requirements for hiring of disabled workers.

"We lacked proper understanding of the system, and stretched our interpretation of the rules for our own convenience for years without examining if it was proper to do so. We deeply regret what happened and apologize," said a senior official of the National Tax Agency on Aug. 28. The agency's inflation of its disabled workforce was found to stand at 1,022.5 workers, by far the largest among the 27 organizations that listed a total of 3,460 employees as being disabled without legally required confirmation.

According to the agency, human resource officials counted workers as disabled when the latter stated in their annual reports that they had chronic illnesses or other such conditions, and confirmed those conditions in hearings. The officials did not check if those workers held government-issued disability certificates, although this was required under Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare guidelines.

There were cases of misreporting of disabilities for employees with internal organ problems such as heart or kidney problems, cancer or diabetes. This mismanagement possibly began shortly after the employment of the disabled became mandatory in 1976, agency officials explained.

At the Ministry of Defense, 315 workers were counted as disabled without checks to determine whether their conditions legally qualified them as being such. The workers included an employee who wrote in an annual report that they were hard of hearing in their left ear, and a worker whose eyesight was as weak as those with government disability certificates. The ministry did not inform them that they were listed as having disabilities.

The Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism overreported 603.5 workers as disabled. The ministry made the calculation based on the results of employees' regular health checkups.

Many central government offices have complained that the health ministry's explanation about the proper calculation methods was insufficient. Its guidelines state that only workers with government-issued disability certificates or designated medical doctors' diagnostic letters confirming their disabilities can be counted as disabled. At the same time, annual instructions the ministry issues to other government ministries and agencies on how to determine disabilities define disabled workers as those who are graded between classes 1 and 6 in government-issued certificates "in principle." These two words -- "in principle" -- led officials at other offices such as the defense, education, justice and farm ministries and the National Tax Agency to conclude that the certificates are not an absolute condition for reporting a worker as being disabled.

According to the health ministry, the current allegations of padding of the number of disabled workers first emerged following an inquiry from a Finance Ministry official in May about whether it was alright to list workers as being disabled even when their disability certificates had not been checked. A senior health ministry official acknowledged that there was a possibility that the interpretation of "in principle" had been extended beyond what the ministry meant.

However, some people familiar with the practice report that intentional padding using this ambiguity as a cover took place. A senior official in a managerial position told the Mainichi Shimbun there was even a case of a dead worker being listed as disabled.

One of the factors behind these failures committed by central government offices is said to be the lack of a watchdog to check whether they are correctly judging disabilities. Such bodies examine private companies every three years to see if they are following the health ministry guidelines properly.

Health Minister Katsunobu Kato said on Aug. 28 that at the current stage, it was difficult to determine if the paddings were the result of malicious intent or misunderstanding, adding that he hoped to have a third-party team involving lawyers investigate what happened.

Under current government plans, the end of 2019 is the deadline by which it aims to achieve the legally required ratio of disabled workers at central government ministries and agencies. The 3,460 people who were counted as disabled without proper vetting may include workers who will eventually be found to meet the legal standards, but it seems almost certain that the central government will have to hire thousands of disabled employees in the near future. Finance Minister Taro Aso told an Aug. 28 press conference that it would be a problem if government offices were competing for a limited number of disabled workers. Another ministry has already started to examine job categories in which the disabled can work, but one of its officials complained with a sigh that it would be hard to respond quickly and bring in new hires.

Meeting the legally required ratio of disabled workers before the deadline just over a year from now is no easy task. One method, which has been proposed by both ruling and opposition parties, would be to set a quota for disabled workers. Such an arrangement would bypass the entrance examinations for central government officials who are selected based on performance. The absence of a quota system is said to be a factor preventing the disabled from working at the central government.

An official at the National Personnel Authority explained that they had heretofore felt no need for such quotas because they thought the ratios of disabled employees were being met. But some local governments have already made such arrangements, and this approach is likely to be discussed in drawing up countermeasures in the wake of the current scandal.

Ministries and agencies have depended on part-time employees, as it is not easy to take on full-time workers. Each government office has administered its own entrance examination, and help-wanted notices focusing on the disabled have been permitted. Sixty percent of disabled workers at the health ministry are part-time employees. As hiring central government bureaucrats has been discouraged under ongoing administrative reforms, a senior ministry official said there was no choice but to increase the number of part-time disabled workers.

According to the health ministry, most of the disabled workers on the payroll of central government bodies are people with physical disabilities. It may be necessary to increase the number of workers with intellectual disabilities or people with psychological problems -- who have come to be included among disabled employees at government bodies since April -- in the future. An official of LITALICO, a Tokyo-based company providing disabled people with work-related assistance, said, "Job descriptions and required considerations vary depending on the type of disability. It is desirable to adjust working environments with the support of experts."

Saitama Prefectural University professor Masaya Asahi, a specialist in the welfare of people with disabilities, commented that getting the disabled involved in policy making may improve the quality of public services. The government should study the possibility of expanding full-time employment of the disabled to serve as a role model for the private sector, Asahi said.

(Japanese original by Hiroyuki Oba and Tatsuya Haga, City News Department; and Hiroyuki Harada, Medical Welfare News Department)

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