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Labor ministry not involved in wage stats glitches as entity: reinvestigation panel

Health, Labor and Welfare Minister Takumi Nemoto, right, receives an additional investigation report on labor statistics irregularities from Yoshio Higuchi, chairman of a special inspection panel on the matter, in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward on Feb. 27, 2019. (Mainichi/Toshiki Miyama)

TOKYO -- A special inspection commission set up by the labor ministry to look into wage statistics irregularities concluded in its re-investigation that the ministry was not involved in the matter as an entity.

Following its initial probe, the commission had concluded this past January that the ministry was not systematically involved in the case.

Moreover, the panel also determined that it cannot be recognized that officials involved intentionally covered up the problem even at a personal level.

The panel comprising experts released a report on its re-investigation into inappropriate data collection methods in the Monthly Labor Survey on Feb. 27. Yoshio Higuchi, chairman of the panel, handed the report to Health, Labor and Welfare Minister Takumi Nemoto later in the day.

The report criticizes the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry for its lack of awareness of the problem and governance as an entity, and urges the ministry to seriously reflect on the scandal.

The survey, used to calculate unemployment benefits and workers' compensation, was required to cover all employers hiring 500 or more people, but the ministry sampled only around one-third of them in Tokyo starting in 2004. This calculation method resulted in roughly 19.7 million recipients of work-related benefits being underpaid by a total of about 56.7 billion yen.

The existence of a manual that permitted inappropriate methods for carrying out a fundamental statistical survey has been confirmed at the ministry, raising suspicions that the ministry was involved in the cover-up of the problem as an entity.

According to the latest report, sometime around winter 2017, Kazuaki Sakamitsu, then director-general for policy planning and evaluation at the ministry, was informed by Noriaki Ishihara, head of the ministry's Employment, Wage and Labor Welfare Statistics Office, that surveys in Tokyo are not conducted in accordance with rules.

In response, Sakamitsu instructed Ishihara to rectify the practice saying, "Correct the method by going through proper procedures."

The inspection commission concluded that the director-general "meant that the matter should be publicly disclosed" and that he "did not permit inappropriate measures."

The panel also stated Ishihara "didn't intentionally attempt to cover up the facts."

The irregularities surfaced in late December 2018, prompting the ministry to set up the inspection commission. The panel held its first meeting on Jan. 17.

At a news conference on Jan. 22 following the release of a report on its initial probe, the commission concluded that the ministry was not involved in the cover-up as an entity.

However, it later turned out that 25 of 37 ministry officials interviewed in the probe -- nearly 70 percent -- were questioned only by ministry insiders. This raised questions about the impartiality of the original investigation. An opposition legislator criticized the initial investigation as a "self-approved probe by insiders."

Nemoto announced on Jan. 25 that the panel would re-investigate the case. The panel then interviewed 59 officials including those at the statistics divisions at the ministry.

Apart from this case, opposition parties are also grilling the government at the House of Representatives Budget Committee over whether the prime minister's office was involved in the labor ministry switching its data collection method from replacing all companies in the 30-499 number of employee range every few years to a partial replacement of survey targets in January 2018.

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

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