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Editorial: Japan's 4-day workweek systems must serve the needs of employees

Four-day workweek systems have been gaining a lot of attention lately in Japan, with some IT, financial and other firms already offering standard three-day weekends, and electronics giant Panasonic Corp. announcing plans to go in the same direction.

    The reasons for going to a four-days-on, three-days-off system vary by company. Some do it to make sure their workers can also cover their child care or elderly care responsibilities, while others want their staff to use the time to learn new skills through retraining or side jobs. The Japanese government even included encouraging uptake of a four-day workweek option in its 2021 Basic Policies for Economic and Fiscal Management and Reform as a major policy.

    Providing a broad range of working options is highly significant. Productivity could see a real boost if people using the extra day off to recharge or for self-improvement are then able to concentrate more and get better results while on the job. Both labor and management could benefit.

    However, workers' interests could also be harmed if company managers are allowed to run four-day workweek schemes solely for their own ends. Managers and workers should deeply discuss the goal of introducing the system as well as its expected outcomes. A shared understanding of what they are trying to do is essential.

    The biggest worry is that switching to three-day weekends will be used as a labor cost cutting tool. Many of the firms already using the system have slashed their workers' salaries by about 20%.

    As Japan's industrial structure changes and the country digitizes, there are ever more job types where work hours and results no longer move in lock-step. So with a little rejigging, it should be possible to maintain pay levels even with one less day per week at work. In addition to making job goals crystal clear to employees, companies need to support moves to higher efficiency.

    It would also be a problem if a reduced workweek was applied mostly to women, purportedly to help them balance their jobs with child care and other home and family duties. If a three-day weekend system is implemented with no change in ossified ideas about work and home, it could obstruct women's career development and bake in the existing pay gap between them and their male colleagues. Any four-day workweek system must be checked, rechecked and improved constantly to make sure its application is not being skewed toward women.

    Introducing the system will face different hurdles depending on job and duty types. Working four days a week may be easy to implement in IT or corporate planning departments, but factories need a certain number of workers to function, while in other fields like digital investing, there must be an efficiency payoff. Measures to stop inequalities from emerging are essential.

    Meanwhile, unions and the government must be called on to monitor the introduction and management of four-day workweeks.

    The government has been loosening Japan's labor regulations since the 1990s, allowing the emergence of dispatch companies and fixed-term contracts, all in the name of creating multiple ways of work. The result, though, has been to swell the ranks of the precariously employed, living at the ragged edge of making ends meet. Based on contemplation of this reality, we must squeeze out every drop of wisdom and experience to make sure the worker's perspective is reflected in any four-day workweek system.

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