Can Japan’s legislation on work hours reduce death from overwork?

By Chen Yang Source:Global Times Published: 2018/7/4 18:18:40

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

The work-style reform bills, which Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe cast as the most important of the current Diet session, were passed by the Upper House on June 29 and by the Lower House on May 31. As the bills go into effect, the Japanese are set to see major changes in their working style.

The Japanese government has pushed the reform in the wake of a shrinking population and the Japanese revulsion for immigrants. According to an outlook analysis by Japan's Mizuho Research Institute last year, the country's labor force stood at 66.48 million in 2016, which corresponds to a labor force participation rate of 60 percent. The number will fall to no more than 40 million by 2065 with the rate dropping to about 50 percent. An April survey by the Nikkei showed that the proportion of Japanese respondents for and against immigrants was both 42 percent, indicating a huge divide among Japanese on the issue.

While most young people are for foreigners coming in, those above 65 - the main constituency of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party - are generally against it. Hence the Japanese government has been conservative in its immigration policy and has to ease the labor force shortage by changing the work style to enhance productivity.

The work-style reform package of eight laws consists of three major pillars: mandatory caps on overtime hours, giving equal pay for equal work and removing work hour limits and overtime payments for high-salary professionals. Despite a controversy over the third one, the other two pillars are very important.

The latest bills cap overtime at 45 hours per month and 360 hours per year in principle, and not more than 100 hours per month during busy periods. A violation will invite a jail sentence of no more than six months or a fine of 300,000 yen ($2,700) for the executive. It's worth noting this is the first time the Japanese government has set legal limits on overtime work hours.

Overwork has been one of Japan's major social ills. In many companies, overwork is not a result of excessive workload or staff shortage, but a cultural habit. If employees often don't work overtime, people think the company has fallen on bad times and may even go out of business soon. This results in endless work and a false show of prosperity.

Excess work is one of the major reasons for karoshi, or death from overwork, in Japan. According to the statistics of Japan's Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, about 200 people died annually from overwork over the past five years. The latest caps on overtime will not only reduce overwork, but draw the line for dealing with overwork deaths to protect the health of the labor force.

The reform bills also have the important provision of equal pay for equal work for formal and temporary employees. In the developed country, it's commonplace that temporary employees who do the same work with formal staff are treated worse in terms of pay, travel allowance and medical benefits etc. The recent rise in employment rate in Japan, which Abe attributes to his Abenomics, has been actually caused by companies' increasing demand for temporary and contract laborers and the recruitment of formal employees is still limited. From this perspective, the package of bills can safeguard fairness in the labor force and provide the incentive to work.

It is expected that the work-style reform bills will free Japanese people from excess work and make them more interested in their jobs. The life of Japanese workers will thereby change. But the bills will only help raise labor productivity and cannot offer a fundamental solution for labor force shortage. The country is still fraught with problems of low birth rate and aging population. 

The author is an editor at the Global Times and a research fellow on Japan issues.


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