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Editorial: Discretionary labor system must correspond to actual working conditions

Japan's so-called discretionary labor system, which the government seeks to expand, has become the focus of deliberation in the Diet, but what exactly is the heart of the issue?

Much time has been devoted during Diet debate to the existence of flawed data in related surveys on working hours conducted by the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare. In the past, the ministry came under fire over its sloppy handling of pension records, and its lack of responsibility with regard to such issues is appalling. Nevertheless, the discretionary labor system covers important issues relating to our work and lifestyles, and legislators must carefully debate these issues in depth.

The discretionary labor system enables employers to pay employees according to a fixed number of hours that they determine in advance as opposed to the actual number of hours worked. There are two categories of workers under the system: specialists such as designers and those in media jobs, and those in planning related jobs involving corporate planning, research and the like.

Under the government's proposal, members of firms handling information-technology (IT) systems who formulate plans for corporate customers, and those who draw up proposals for quality management at manufacturers of machine tools would be added to the category of planning related jobs.

Thanks to labor-saving developments brought by the IT field and robots, simple labor has decreased, while in white-collar professions, specialist and planning jobs have been increasing. It is thus expected that the number of jobs in which working hours cannot be used to accurately determine pay will increase in the future. There are also more people wanting to work in places, at times and in styles that suit themselves. For people who are working while providing nursing care or raising children, and those who want to work even if they are ill or have disabilities, there are merits in the discretionary labor system, which allows for various styles of working.

At the same time, society must be on guard against companies expanding the scope of the system to cover employees who would not normally fall under it so they can cut overtime pay. In game development and design jobs, there has been a stream of cases in which young employees to whom the discretionary labor system has been applied have been forced to work long hours without overtime pay.

Under the discretionary labor system, workers must have the necessary knowledge and experience, and they have to be guaranteed sufficient wages without overtime pay. At present, there are no stipulations on wages and people's careers, or on the number of years worked. Strict divisions commensurate with working conditions are required.

Labor-management committees representing workers and managers are supposed to decide which workers fall under the system, and finalize the presumed number of working hours. Measures to maintain workers' health are also left up to these committees, but questions remain over how far they can go in checking the actual situation.

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