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Japan labor ministry survey on work hours based on flawed data

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaks during a House of Representatives Budget Committee session on Feb. 14, 2018. (Mainichi)

A survey on work hours that the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry conducted on 11,575 business establishments across the country in 2013, over which opposition parties have raised serious questions, is based on flawed data, it has been learned.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe initially said during the ongoing regular Diet session that the planned discretionary labor system for highly professional workers could lead to reductions in work hours based on the survey outcome. However, he retracted and apologized for the statement on Feb. 14, after inconsistencies in the survey data were pointed out.

The ministry conducted the survey in a bid to grasp the actual work hours of Japanese workers and their extra pay, such as overtime allowances.

In the survey, however, the ministry merely checked the amount of overtime performed by a typical worker at each business establishment who worked for average hours, instead of calculating the exact average of overtime performed by all workers at each workplace.

Based on the data, the government concluded that workers at the business establishments surveyed put one hour and 37 minutes in overtime a day on average. By adding eight regular work hours a day to the figure, the government calculated the average daily work hours of ordinary workers in Japan at nine hours, 37 minutes.

By citing the figure, the government told the Diet that the labor hours of those in planning jobs under the discretionary labor system -- at nine hours and 16 minutes a day on average -- were shorter than those of ordinary workers, and emphasized the advantages of the discretionary system.

However, it later turned out that nine of the businesses responded in the survey that their employees put more than 15 hours in overtime a day. If eight regular work hours were added, the daily work hours would total over 23 hours a day, which is impossible.

Data also stated that ordinary workers put a total of two hours and 47 minutes in overtime a week on average. Opposition parties, however, have pointed out that if the average overtime of ordinary Japanese workers is one hour and 37 minutes a day as the ministry says, the weekly overtime should be around five times that amount, far above two hours and 47 minutes.

The figures that the ministry had calculated based on the outcome of the 2013 survey were first cited by then Health, Labor and Welfare Minister Yasuhisa Shiozaki in a House of Representatives Health, Labor and Welfare Committee session in July 2015 when deliberating on the expansion of the discretionary work system.

Professor Mitsuko Uenishi of Hosei University's Faculty of Lifelong Learning and Career Studies pointed out that the figures lack objectiveness. "It's highly likely that the figures were worked out in order to have the Diet pass relevant bills," she said.

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