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1 in 4 firms in Japan say workers log over 80 overtime hours a month

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Staff Writer

Nearly 1 in 4 companies have admitted that some employees do more than 80 hours of overwork per month, according to the nation’s first white paper released Friday on karoshi, or death by overwork.

According to the survey, taken between last December and January this year, about 10.8 percent of companies said they had workers putting in 80 to 100 hours of overtime a month, while another 11.9 percent said they had workers doing more than 100 hours.

The paper, said to be the first of its kind in the world, was based on responses from 1,743 companies and 19,583 workers. It had targeted 10,000 firms and 20,000 employees.

The document was adopted by the government as part of measures to combat karoshi, in line with a law that came into effect in November 2014.

By industry, IT workers were found to be the most overworked, with 44.4 percent of IT companies that responded to the survey saying some of their employees did more than 80 hours of overtime per month. For academic, research and engineering-sector organizations the number was 40.5 percent, followed by transport and postal services companies at 38.4 percent.

Meanwhile, the government acknowledged 96 deaths from strokes and heart attacks as being work related and awarded compensation to such karoshi victims in fiscal 2015 ending in March, while it awarded compensation in 93 cases where people distressed by work-related problems committed or attempted suicide. Experts, however, have long said criteria used for the state compensation scheme is too narrow and that the actual number of people who die from overwork is much higher.

According to National Police Agency statistics, 2,159 people committed suicide due at least in part to work-related problems in 2015.

Emiko Teranishi, 67, the head of the nationwide network of family members of karoshi victims, praised the publication of the white paper, which was reported to the Diet.

Teranishi said the 280-page document carried special significance for the group, which had played a key role in the introduction of the karoshi prevention law and other measures against the phenomenon.

The white paper not only tallies related statistics but dedicates a chapter to how karoshi became a social issue in the 1980s, leading to grass-roots movements for reform.

However, Teranishi said the government should do more to eradicate karoshi through firm measures to keep companies from exploiting loopholes in labor laws as well as tougher penalties for violators.

Teranishi lost her husband to suicide resulting from work pressures 20 years ago. The then-manager of a soba noodle restaurant in Kyoto Prefecture, Teranishi’s husband became sleep-deprived and depressed as the recession hit, sales plummeted and work burdens increased.

“He worked 4,000 hours a year,” Teranishi said. “The company had him punch a time card every day, so it knew that he worked that hard. In the days before his death, he had told his boss he had no appetite, he couldn’t sleep and was exhausted. The company knew he was at high risk (of karoshi).”

Teranishi expressed both “hope and concern” toward recent government moves to put caps on the number of working hours.

A government panel on work-style reform, headed by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, started discussing such changes last month. But only one member of the panel represents workers — a head of a federation of labor unions, she pointed out.

The government has set a goal of lowering the percentage of employees working more than 60 hours a week to 5 percent of the total workforce. It also wants all workers to take at least 70 percent of their paid holidays by 2020.

The anti-karoshi law mandates the central and local governments to research various factors behind overwork, as well as raise awareness, beef up consultation programs and aid private-sector support groups.