Labor office summons Kansai Electric chief in wake of overwork-related suicide

Kyodo

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Labor authorities have summoned the president of Kansai Electric Power Co. to receive guidance following the overwork-related suicide of a “managerial” employee despite government efforts to rein in excessive work hours, according to informed sources.

The Tsuruga Labor Standard Inspection Office in Fukui Prefecture handed a paper to Kansai Electric President Shigeki Iwane on Jan. 6 ordering the Osaka-based utility to check the work hours of all employees in managerial positions, given that the employee in question, who killed himself last April, held a management post, though it was apparently only nominal in nature.

The employee, a section chief in his 40s, had worked more than 100 hours — sometimes around 200 — of overtime per month before his death trying to complete the process for obtaining regulatory approval to extend the lives of two of the utility’s aging reactors in Fukui Prefecture.

A lawyer who specializes in karoshi (death from overwork) said it is rare for authorities to ask for an investigation into the work hours of managerial personnel.

Under the Labor Standards Law, people in supervisory or management positions are exempt from labor hour restrictions and do not receive overtime pay. This provision tends to lead to lax management of work hours for people in such positions, experts say.

Koji Morioka, an expert on the issue and a professor emeritus at Kansai University, said that whether to categorize a certain position as “management level” is currently at the discretion of companies and that the relevant rule is often “abused.”

He also said a person who works 200 hours of overtime “cannot be called a person in a position of supervision or management.”

Kansai Electric is now expected to report the work hours of all management-level employees over the past two years to the Labor Standard Inspection Office. It will also check extra work they did at home.

“We take the guidance sincerely and will continue to make efforts to appropriately manage labor hours,” a Kansai Electric official said.

The sources said the utility did not break the law in connection with the suicide. But the company still has an obligation to pay extra wages for late-night overtime work and monitor the hours of people in such positions.

The employee is also believed to have taken work home, but the labor office has not been able to confirm the exact number of hours he worked at home, prompting it to take the latest move.

The employee was in charge of work that would decide the fate of Kansai Electric’s two reactors at the Takahama nuclear plant in Fukui Prefecture. He committed suicide in a Tokyo hotel in mid-April during a business trip and the Tsuruga labor office concluded in October that overwork led him to kill himself.

Nuclear regulators decided in June to allow the reactors continue to operate beyond 40 years. If the safety screening process had not ended by early July, the utility would likely have had to scrap the units.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government is stepping up efforts to curb excessive work after labor authorities determined in September that Matsuri Takahashi, an employee of advertising giant Dentsu Inc. who committed suicide in December 2015 at age 24, was a victim of karoshi. The news of her suicide caused an uproar over endemic overwork at leading Japanese companies.