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233 more cases of flawed labor data found as gov't pushes work reform bills

Health, Labor and Welfare Minister Katsunobu Kato raises his hand during a House of Representatives subcommittee session on Feb. 26, 2018. (Mainichi)

Health, Labor and Welfare Minister Katsunobu Kato disclosed on Feb. 26 that an additional 233 cases of irregular data have been found among his ministry's survey data on the so-called discretionary labor system, bringing the total number of flawed data incidents to over 300 and dealing a further blow to the administration that drafted a set of work-style reform bills based on the information.

The revelation came during a House of Representatives Budget Committee session, at a time when the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe aims to submit the work-style reform bills to the Diet, including legislation for an expansion of the discretionary labor system -- in which employees are paid based on fixed work hours instead of actual hours spent on the job.

However, the government told the same lower house panel session on Feb. 26 that it had no intention of retracting the health ministry survey data in question, apparently because a withdrawal of the data and a resurvey would raise the need to review the work-style reform bills, making it almost impossible to pass them through the Diet during the current session. Such a scenario could deal a serious blow to Prime Minister Abe's centripetal force within his administration.

Opposition parties are gearing up their attacks on the government, saying that the work-style reform bills would be crucial as they "concern the lives of workers through issues such as death by overwork." If the Abe administration forces the submission of the bills despite the spate of revelations of flawed data, that could push down its own approval ratings. The administration is therefore in limbo over how to deal with the situation.

During the lower house budget panel session, labor minister Kato acknowledged that the ministry survey data in question was "unreasonable" and leaves "a sense of strangeness," as opposition lawmakers pointed out newly found irregularities in the data. Akira Nagatsuma, acting leader of the opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, slammed the government, saying, "The credibility of the data has been lost." However, Kato and Prime Minister Abe insisted that they would not retract the survey data on labor hours in question, saying that the data "is under scrutiny right at the moment." If the government retracts the data and opposition parties push for a resurvey, the debate on the issue could be sent back to a health ministry council that rubber-stamped the work-style reform bills as "appropriate." Prime Minister Abe has branded the current Diet session as one featuring debate on work-style reform, and the fate of the bills may affect his influence in the run-up to the ruling Liberal Democratic Party's leadership election scheduled for this coming September. "We will not redo the survey," said a senior official with the prime minister's office.

When Nagatsuma demanded that the government investigate who instructed the improper comparison of data on labor hours between regular workers and those employed under the discretionary labor system, Kato flatly replied, "The data was submitted by the department in charge, nothing more, nothing less." His response was aimed at dodging the question of exactly who ordered the creation of data in a manner that is convenient to the administration. Prime Minister Abe earlier retracted his responses to Diet questions based on the data. Kato's response, however, only ended up adding fuel to the opposition backlash, with one legislator complaining, "It's such a 'so-what' attitude."

The flurry of revelations of irregular data has attracted much public attention to the government's move to expand the scope of the discretionary labor system by way of the work-style reform bills. In a recent Mainichi Shimbun opinion poll, 57 percent of respondents were opposed to broadening the job categories in which the discretionary labor system can be adopted, well over the 18 percent who were in favor of such a move. If the bills are to be submitted to the Diet as they are, the public backlash could further catch on.

At the lower house budget panel session on Feb. 26, Prime Minister Abe stopped short of specifying the timing of the government's submission of the bills, saying, "I cannot say anything definitive as the bills are set to undergo screening by the ruling coalition. That's what the ruling parties will decide." Kato, meanwhile, also pushed back his fundraising party that had been scheduled to be held in Tokyo that evening.

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