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Opposition grills gov't on allegations that discretionary labor data inconsistencies faked

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe answers a question about flawed labor survey data as Health, Labor and Welfare Minister Katsunobu Kato, rear, looks on during a House of Representatives Budget Committee meeting on Feb. 20, 2018. (Mainichi)

Opposition parties are grilling the government over flawed data on work hours, which Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had cited at a Jan. 29 House of Representatives Budget Committee session to stress advantages of the "discretionary labor" system.

Opposition forces pointed to the possibility that the labor ministry had fabricated the data in a bid to facilitate deliberations on a labor reform bill. The bill includes the expansion of the discretionary labor system, in which employees are paid according to fixed work hours rather than the actual hours spent on the job, to cover a wider scope of "highly professional workers."

In a Feb. 19 meeting of opposition parties on the data flaw, lawmakers slammed the government's handling of the matter. Akira Nagatsuma, acting leader of the opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP), stated, "I suspect that the incident occurred after the prime minister's office gave some instructions. The government should retract the data and redo the survey" on which the data was based.

A senior Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry official present at the meeting repeatedly apologized over the flawed data, but emphasized that the numbers were not deliberately altered and that the error was caused by a lack of knowledge on the part of an official in charge.

At a news conference on Feb. 19, ministry councillor Yoshihisa Tsuchiya said, "We didn't intentionally make up these figures."

The labor ministry conducted the survey on work hours from April to June 2013, the results of which were reported to a subcommittee of the ministry's Labor Policy Council in October of that year. In the survey, the ministry asked different questions to workers in two labor models: regular employment and the discretionary labor system. Regular workers were queried about the longest extra work they had done in a day over a period of one month, while those working under the discretionary labor system were asked their daily work hours. The survey showed that on average, regular employees worked longer hours than those employed under the special payroll system.

At the time, however, no data comparing regular employees' work hours with those of workers employed under the discretionary system had been compiled.

In March 2015, about two years after the survey was conducted, the official in charge compiled data comparing workers in the two labor models. The move was in response to a question raised by a legislator with the then Democratic Party of Japan about comparison of work hours between workers in different labor systems.

However, work-hours data in these two labor models were incomparable as the survey subjects were asked different questions.

According to an explanation provided by the ministry, the official in charge overlooked the differences and their superiors, including the division director and the director general of the Labor Standards Bureau, approved the data without noticing the problem.

In a lower house Health, Labor and Welfare Committee session in July 2015, then labor minister Yasuhisa Shiozaki referred to the data. He also cited the data in a Diet session in February 2017. Prime Minister Abe furthermore told the Diet on Jan. 29 this year, "There are data showing that the average work hours of those employed under the discretionary labor system are shorter than those of regular workers."

The labor ministry noticed the flaw on Feb. 1 after closely examining the data in response to questions about detailed figures from an opposition party legislator. Labor minister Katsunobu Kato was notified of the error on Feb. 7.

It was not until on Feb. 14 -- immediately after opposition parties began to press the government over their doubts about the data -- that Abe retracted his statement on the work-hours comparison.

"The prime minister's office deemed it no longer possible to get through Diet deliberations (unless the prime minister retracted his statement)," a source close to the government said.

The government has incorporated the expansion of the discretionary labor system in the work-style reform bill, which the government intends to submit to the current Diet session. Opposition parties are demanding that the expansion of the discretionary system be removed from the bill. However, a senior labor ministry official said, "We're not thinking of removing the proposal to expand the system from the bill. It wouldn't win understanding from business organizations. The bill is like a glass sculpture entangled with labor and management's intentions, so it would fall apart if the (discretionary labor) system were to be dropped."

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