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Editorial: Curbing overtime remains central issue of work-style reform

The Cabinet has finally approved a draft "work-style reform" bill -- the centerpiece of the current Diet session.

Approval of the bill came over a month later than originally planned, following the discovery of strange and in some instances contradictory data in a related survey on work hours conducted by the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare. As a result of the oddities, the government decided to remove from the bill plans to expand the "discretionary labor system," which enables employers to pay employees based on fixed work hours that they determine in advance as opposed to the actual hours spent on the job.

We recall that work-style reform was something the government came under pressure to implement following the suicide of a female employee of advertising giant Dentsu Inc. Improving low wages of nonregular workers has also been a pressing issue.

Unless members of the younger generation have peace of mind as they work, get married and have children, the base of society as a whole will start to sink. And that's precisely why regulation of overtime and other such issues is important.

The proposed legislation started to spur debate, however, following the inclusion of a system for highly paid skilled professional workers and proposed expansion of the discretionary labor system, both of which the government backed. The system for skilled professional workers has no limitations on overtime work, and exempts employers from paying overtime wages to such workers.

From a managerial viewpoint, restrictions on overtime work would cut into labor power that is already in short supply, while increasing the wages of nonregular workers would cause personnel costs to surge, dealing a blow to company finances. The system for skilled professional workers and expansion of the discretionary labor system were probably seen as ways to make up for these negative aspects.

When deciding on the value of work that comes down to creativity rather than work hours, discussion of the system for highly skilled professionals and the discretionary labor system is meaningful. But cases in which workers to whom the discretionary labor system cannot apply are nevertheless treated as such and are forced to work long hours, so managers can cut back on overtime expenses, are rampant.

At Nomura Real Estate Development Co., a worker took his own life after being illegally subjected to the discretionary labor system. In the Diet, the government stressed that it had issued a special directive to the company, but has not acknowledged the central issue -- namely suicide from overwork.

Merely highlighting the merits of a system without recognizing the adverse effects that have actually occurred exposes inconsistency. And such an approach only deepens distrust in the government proposal.

Opposition parties have opposed the proposed legislation relating to work-style reform on the grounds that similar trouble could occur among workers classed as highly skilled professionals. The Diet deliberations will inevitably become entangled over the issue. Wouldn't it make more sense for the government to first implement thorough measures to curb the adverse effects of the legislation?

It's unreasonable in the first place to compile contradictory tightening and relaxing of regulations into a single bill package. The government should go back to the starting point of restricting overtime hours, and engage in discussion on work-style reform.

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