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Editorial: As work-style reform bills pass, workers' health, lives must be protected

A package of work-style reform bills that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe saw as one of the greatest highlights of the ongoing Diet session has passed both chambers of the legislature.

The systemic reforms come at a time when calls for the eradication of death from overwork -- known in Japanese as "karoshi" -- have grown, and the conditions of employment and people's values are undergoing vast change. We must enable a diverse range of work styles based on the times that we live in.

The related bills comprise three major pillars: mandatory caps on overtime hours, the realization of equal pay for equal work, and the removal of work hour limits and overtime payments for highly paid professionals.

This is the first time that violators of mandatory caps on overtime will be penalized since the Labor Standards Act went into effect in 1947. Mandatory caps on overtime hours are set to be 45 hours per month and 360 hours per year in principle, and no more than 100 hours per month during busy periods.

The overtime limit that medical experts say, if exceeded, could cause death from overwork, is 80 hours per month -- prompting criticism that the reform bills are not strict enough to ensure workers' well-being. However, under current laws, the sky is the limit when it comes to overtime, if employers and laborers sign contracts that allow for it. According to labor ministry investigations of companies suspected of subjecting employees to long work hours, some 20 percent of companies were confirmed to have workers doing over 80 hours of overtime per month, while some companies had workers logging over 200 hours of overtime per month.

The new regulations may be insufficient, but they are significant in that a mandatory cap on overtime has been legally established.

The wages of non-regular workers in Japan stand at around 60 percent of that of regular workers, which is much lower than the approximately 80 percent that appears to be the norm in European countries. The policy of equal pay for equal work was incorporated into the newly passed work-style reform bills in order to improve the working conditions of non-regular workers, including wage raises.

The specifics will be decided upon in labor-management negotiations based on guidelines that the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare will lay down. Low wages among young people have become a factor preventing them from getting married and having children. Therefore, boosting wages among non-regular workers raises high hopes from the standpoint of addressing the low birth rate, too. The labor ministry's guidelines should be strict enough to close any loopholes.

In order to steadily and consistently execute the reforms in the package, monitoring and instruction from public institutions is essential. In 2015, "overwork eradication special measures squads" -- dubbed "katoku" -- were established in the Tokyo and Osaka labor bureaus. The squads consist of special judicial police officials who have the authority to send suspects to public prosecutors, but there are currently only 15 such officials. There is no way they can oversee all workplaces across Japan.

Not only do we need labor standards inspection offices to provide employers with instruction and oversight, but we also need improvements in labor unions' capacity to monitor whether rules are being complied with, and transparency in companies' efforts.

The part of the work-style reform package that lawmakers were most split on concerned highly paid professionals. Under the new system, work hour limits and overtime payments for professionals paid an annual salary of at least 10.75 million yen will be removed, with pay depending on workers' achievements. If workers who fall under this category wish to be exempted from the rules, they can be, but it's questionable how many people will actually be able to ask their bosses for such an exemption.

This "highly paid professionals" aspect of the work-style reforms was incorporated into the package by the Abe administration in response to the desires of employers who want to increase the number of employees who can work long hours for them without having to pay them overtime. At one point, the possibility of stipulating the criteria for jobs and salaries by law came up, but ultimately, it was decided that the criteria would be set by a ministerial ordinance.

This, however, means there's a risk that the band of workers subject to such conditions could eventually expand without appropriate debate. The concerns of those who have lost loved ones to "karoshi" that workers could be forced to work long overtime hours are easily understandable. In order to prevent management from abusing the new system, we need a stronger monitoring mechanism.

Meanwhile, workers are calling for the freedom to work more flexibly. An increasing number of people are working as they take care of elderly relatives or raising children, and there must be many who want to spend more time on community activities, side jobs and hobbies.

What is being sought is not a system that allows for cost cutting, but a system that allows for the worker to decide how and for how long they will work.

Compared to years past, the number of jobs requiring simple manual labor has decreased, while high-value-added jobs are increasing. It has always been difficult to determine wages for creative work by time. And in particular, highly paid professionals who are engaging in work requiring great expertise should be able to have more of a say over management.

Companies will be forced to find a way to increase productivity while working hours drop and non-regular workers' wages go up. They must first look for wastefulness in the workplace that results in long working hours, adopting the use of AI, robots and other forms of labor-saving IT when possible. And for small- and mid-sized companies that do not have the reserves for capital investment, there needs to be some form of assistance.

Going forward, the government is set to deliberate teleworking, which would allow workers to do their work from home. The newly passed bills are just the first step in work-style reform, and it's time for both labor and management to change their notions of what work entails.

In order to spread diverse ways of working, institutions of higher learning, such as universities, as well as public vocational training programs, must be beefed up. Society as a whole should be ready to back up workers, including those who are middle-aged or elderly.

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