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Editorial: Discretionary labor system must be reviewed as illnesses, deaths mount

Five male employees of Mitsubishi Electric Corp. were certified by labor inspection authorities to have work-related health problems such as mental illness and strokes from fiscal 2014 through 2017. Three of them, including one who killed himself due to overwork, were employed under the discretionary labor system.

The system was applied to 10,000 of about 30,000 employed by the major electronics maker, but it was abolished altogether in March this year. Such a move is rare among large corporations.

Under the discretionary labor system, employees are paid not based on the actual time spent on the job, but on preset hours. It is up to the employee how long and in what style they work, as long as they come up with results. It was originally designed to prevent karoshi, or death from overwork.

However, the injuries or deaths of 42 people employed under the system, including the three workers at Mitsubishi Electric, were certified as work-related between fiscal 2014 and 2017. A large gap exists between the system's ideal and the reality. A detailed investigation must be carried out to identify reasons for this contradiction.

The discretionary labor system is applied to two types of workers; experts and corporate planners. The three people at Mitsubishi Electric were engineers involved in systems development, and worked under the expert category.

Observers say that engineers in particular have to shoulder a great burden as technology advances and becomes compartmentalized. We suspect that many people are tasked with amounts of work that cannot be processed within the preset work hours under the discretionary program.

A lot of people must be working long hours due to the pressure of competition with other companies or even their colleagues in the same companies, even if their employers do not set challenging achievement requirements.

You may be able to decide how long you work under the discretionary system, but hard, intensive labor could also cause excessive stress and impair your judgment.

An increasing number of companies are introducing the discretionary labor system. In 2016, about 13,000 corporations did so. The administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is pushing the system, and tried to submit a bill to the Diet expanding the range of jobs covered. It had to give up because of inappropriate data the government used to support the bill. The Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare set up a panel of experts to discuss the system this month.

However, we lack actual data as to why people working under the discretionary labor system end up suffering from work-related injuries and death. The Abe administration should first find out the reality of the system and analyze the reasons behind the discrepancy between the reality and the ideal, before casually expanding the system's coverage.

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