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Editorial: Learn lessons now from Dentsu worker suicide, and protect workers' health

The Tokyo Summary Court recently slapped advertising giant Dentsu Inc. with a 500,000 yen (about $4,400) fine for forcing employees to work illegal overtime, a company policy that ultimately resulted in the stress-induced suicide of 24-year-old Matsuri Takahashi in late 2015.

In an unprecedented move, Dentsu as a corporation was indicted on charges of violating the Labor Standards Act following Takahashi's suicide, and the company's president apologized before the court for the firm's labor practices.

The fine of 500,000 yen is not a heavy punishment. Yet, the incident had a great impact on society and had significant influence on the government's discussions on what it calls "work-style reform."

Overwork caused by illegal overtime and other labor practices is a serious challenge common to many Japanese companies. Employers should learn lessons from the Dentsu case and fundamentally review their employees' working environment.

Dentsu's trial put the firm's reluctance to rectify its overwork problem into harsh relief. Labor standards inspection offices had recognized illegal overtime at Dentsu's Kansai branch and Tokyo headquarters in 2014 and 2015, respectively, and urged the firm to improve its labor practices. Nevertheless, the advertising giant failed to reduce workload on its employees, and illegally long work hours were prevalent at the firm. What is worse, Dentsu raised the upper limit on work hours set by a labor-management agreement under Article 36 of the Labor Standards Act.

It is only natural that the Tokyo Summary Court pointed out that the company superficially eliminated the state of illegality instead of fundamentally improving working conditions. Moreover, the court ruled that the labor-management agreement on the upper limit on work hours was invalid because Dentsu's labor union represents less than half of its workers. Dentsu's responsibility for the incident is grave.

It is difficult to resolve core problems involving long work hours if the matter is left to labor-management negotiations alone. There are many businesses that have not signed an agreement with their workers' unions on overwork hour limits to begin with. Critics have pointed out that these accords have many loopholes anyway, as was the case with Dentsu.

It is essential to discussions forward on measures to rectify long work hours, such as a bill to harden the overtime upper limit -- a bill scheduled to be submitted to the autumn extraordinary Diet session before it was cast into limbo by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's sudden dissolution of the House of Representatives.

In a separate case, it has recently surfaced that the death of a reporter at public broadcaster NHK was recognized in 2014 as a result of overwork. She logged 159 hours of overtime in the month before her death.

To prevent such tragedies, it is necessary to not only reduce work hours but also create a system to provide counseling for employees. It is necessary to take all possible measures to protect the dignity and health of workers.

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