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Labor data problem dates back some 25 years; budget not enough for appropriate survey

Sample questionnaires of the Basic Survey on Wage Structure are seen in this picture. (Mainichi/Tatsuya Fujii)

TOKYO -- Illicit methods employed in conducting a key wage survey by the labor ministry had been in place "for more than 25 years," according to a veteran official at a regional labor bureau in eastern Japan with experience in ministry labor surveys.

"From what I remember, the survey was administered by mail when I became a bureaucrat more than 25 years ago," said the official.

The Basic Survey on Wage Structure was meant to be conducted through direct visits by researchers according to survey plans submitted to the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry. The poll, which began in 1948, collects data on wages by employment types and length, as well as workers' sex. The data is used in setting the minimum wage and calculating industrial accident compensation.

In addition to the basic wage survey, another important ministry poll, the Monthly Labor Survey on wages and working hours, is known to have had irregularities since at least 1996. These findings strongly suggest that the problems existed before 2001 when the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare was established through a merger between the Ministry of Labor and the Ministry of Health and Welfare. These surveys had originally been carried out by the Ministry of Labor.

A senior official in charge of the basic wage survey has been found to have allegedly covered up the corrupt data collection methods, which also included the illicit exclusion of some drinking establishments.

The regional labor bureau official has no idea how the rule violations began. "I was doing the job year in, year out, in the way my predecessor told me to do it."

It is also unclear if the wrongdoings started with an instruction from the Labor Ministry or was a decision by regional bureaus. The labor ministry explains that the budget for the survey was allocated based on costs for researcher visits, but the amount does not appear to be enough to cover such a survey.

In the fiscal 2018 budget, the ministry earmarked approximately 150 million yen for the basic wage survey, including some 90 million yen to hire a cumulative total of 11,564 researchers.

But the budget is just enough to hire 200 part-time researchers for 60 days, although the survey usually takes 60 to 90 days to complete. They must visit some 78,000 employers nationwide for the poll at least twice -- once when they distribute the questionnaires and once again to collect them.

The Tokyo Labor Bureau, which is responsible for collecting data on more than 5,000 employers, sent out and received the questionnaires by mail. An official in charge said it is "impossible to do direct visit surveys with the number of people we have on staff." The bureau was able to hire only 23 researchers for fiscal 2018 because of budget limitations.

The Chiba Labor Bureau east of Tokyo had only seven researchers to complete the data collection of more than 2,000 employers. "We'd probably only be able to gather data on 10 percent of the employers we're supposed to cover if we did visitations with the staff we have," said one official.

Even the government realized that carrying out direct visits for the basic wage survey was too much, suggesting a shift to mail or online data collection. Participants at the Jan. 30 meeting of the Statistics Commission, an internal affairs ministry panel overseeing public surveys, said using mail in the survey wasn't necessarily bad, and discussions are likely to head toward changing the survey plan to match reality.

Meanwhile, in the Monthly Labor Survey, the labor ministry checked only around 90 percent of employers it was supposed to survey at least since 1996. In addition, the ministry covered only one-third of employers with 500 or more workers in Tokyo for 15 years since 2004 although it was required to survey all companies with that many employees. Moreover, the labor ministry illicitly reduced the number of mid-sized employers with 30 to 499 workers that it polled until 2003. The corrupt survey methods caused tens of billions of yen in payment shortfalls for work-related benefits, affecting some 20 million people.

An individual linked with the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare says that these aberrant methods "had been used for quite some time." Finding out why such practices were introduced is no easy task, the person said, because some people who had been involved appear to be dead. "There are high hurdles to be cleared (to get to the truth)," said the individual.

(Japanese original by Akira Okubo and Shunsuke Kamiashi, City News Department)

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