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Editorial: Businesses, gov't must tackle Japan's long work hours

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe issued instructions at a recent meeting of the National Council for Promoting the Dynamic Engagement of All Citizens that the situation forcing many Japanese employees to work long hours be rectified.

    In response, the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry has lowered the threshold for subjecting workplaces to raids by labor standards inspection offices. Up until now offices have inspected workplaces if a worker's monthly overtime exceeds 100 hours, but the ministry lowered the standard to 80 hours.

    It goes without saying that the government needs to crack down on employers who force their employees to work long hours in excess of the legal limit, but it should also pay attention to the background behind the fact that overtime work has become a common practice at many Japanese companies. The government should help companies improve their working environments to eliminate overtime while improving wages for workers so that they can make a living without overtime allowances.

    Long work hours at companies involved in fierce price wars -- such as restaurant operators Sukiya Co. and Watami Co. -- have developed into a social problem. A survey released by the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry earlier this month shows that illegal overtime work was confirmed at 4,790 of 8,530 workplaces surveyed -- more than half of the total.

    The ministry has set up a task force to eliminate excessive labor, assigned special overwork inspectors to its 47 regional labor bureaus, and begun to crack down on employers that force their employees to perform excessive overtime.

    The Labor Standards Act sets the upper limit on weekly work hours at 40 hours. However, work hours can be extended to a certain extent on condition that an employer and a labor union sign an agreement under Article 36 of the law. Moreover, the period can be further extended if a special labor-management accord is concluded. The fact that overtime is a common practice at many companies is attributable to these legal provisions.

    The ratio of workers in Japan who work long hours is noticeably high compared to other developed countries. The Japanese Trade Union Confederation, Japan's largest labor umbrella organization, commonly known as "Rengo," has demanded that long overtime work be substantially reduced, but workers do not necessarily agree to the idea. The amount of work assigned to employees at many companies is based on the assumption that they perform overtime work, and workers will have difficulties making a living without overtime allowances.

    To make sure that company workers can survive without working overtime, it is necessary for both business operators and employees to step up efforts to increase their productivity. Employers that have accumulated massive internal reserves should divert significant portions of their profits to improve wages, and the government should also boldly raise minimum wage levels. Although it is no easy task, both the government and business operators should review their wage systems and labor and business practices on the assumption that employees will not be required to work overtime.

    Only about 50 percent of women reportedly continue to work after giving birth to their first child. Overtime work has made it difficult for women to continue to work while bringing up their children, restricts time that their husbands can spend raising their kids, and prevents many husbands from taking child care leave.

    It is also difficult for workers to continue to work while caring for their elderly parents -- a task said to force as many as 100,000 people to quit their jobs each year. In 2025, the youngest baby-boomers will reach the age of 75, and the number of those who need nursing care is expected to rise sharply. It is obvious that there will be a serious shortage of care service providers, forcing more people to quit their jobs to care for their aging parents.

    To achieve "dynamic engagement of all citizens," Japan must switch to labor practices that ensure workers can bring up their children and look after elderly family members while working. Reducing long work hours should be a key policy measure to achieve this goal.

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