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Editorial: Work reform bill was questionable even before data scandal

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's decision to eliminate a stipulation on expanding the so-called discretionary labor system from his administration's proposed work-style bill came far too late.

It's likely that Abe gave up on passing the stipulation in the current session of the Diet because he determined it would be unrealistic, in light of the discovery of a slew of flawed data provided by the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare that was meant to offer justification for the discretionary labor system. But a simple retraction of that part of the bill does not mean all is well and good.

The brouhaha began in late January, when the prime minister responded to opposition parties' concerns about the risk of people being overworked under a discretionary labor system, by citing labor ministry data which said the average worker on a discretionary labor contract generally works shorter hours than those on a conventional contract.

Abe says he intends to order re-examination of the current working conditions, and submit a proposal to institute a discretionary labor system at a later Diet session. What should be a top priority, however, is finding out why and how such faulty data was collected in the first place. Was it an innocent mistake, as the labor ministry claims it was? Or was the purpose of the survey, from the very beginning, to reach the conclusion that discretionary labor contracts do not lead to longer work hours? Doubts about the survey's fairness -- a linchpin of politics -- remain.

The prime minister has not changed his mind about submitting a labor reform bill during the current Diet session that would allow the establishment of a system excluding highly paid, highly skilled professionals from an overtime pay system, while also regulating overtime work.

As with discretionary labor contracts, the exclusion of highly paid, highly skilled professionals from overtime pay has been a long-held hope of employers. Abe had stressed that a reform that incorporates both would lead to an improvement in corporate productivity.

However, integrating reform that would accomplish the kind of deregulation that employers want and the tightening of overtime regulations that would benefit workers into one package is a bit of a stretch. That paradox is now in full view.

If the opposition parties protest this package deal, the government can accuse the opposition of protesting stricter overtime regulations -- which is likely one of the reasons why the government came up with the package to begin with. Each element of the labor reform bill, however, should be made into individual bills for careful and separate deliberation in the Diet.

Criticism of the labor reform bill has erupted among members of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) as well. Abe's latest decision seems linked to concerns that pushing through with the bill in its unchanged state would have negatively impacted his chances of winning a third term as LDP president in the party leadership election set to take place this fall.

Prime Minister Abe announced the elimination of the discretionary labor stipulation from the labor reform bill shortly after the fiscal 2018 budget was passed in the House of Representatives, confirming the budget's passage within the current fiscal year, which ends on March 31. The month leading up to Abe's decision was spent largely on the issue of faulty data. If the prime minister had decided to take out the discretionary labor stipulation sooner, that time could have been spent on deliberations about other issues, such as North Korea. Abe bears a heavy responsibility for having prevented such discussion.

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