A labor market contradiction

I feel that Grant Piper’s July 11 letter, “Abnormal way to run a workday,” has vividly depicted a current contradiction in the Japanese labor market.

In the good old days — the culmination of Japan’s economic growth — the more that people worked, the more that they and their companies got. The idea of working long hours had already been strongly infused in society. Working overtime even without pay came to be considered common and virtuous.

During this economic growth period, a series of pathetic and terrible incidents related to poor working conditions and overtime occurred. So the central government had no choice but to enforce employees’ rights. As a result, on a textbook basis, Japanese workers’ rights appear to be among the strongest in the world.

But, nowadays, only a few big companies in Japan comply with these strict regulations. They fear crackdowns over labor-law violations. Thanks to the development of IT technology, authorities can easily substantiate overtime work without pay, or other unlawful practices, by checking log-in records on PCs.

On the other hand, small- and medium-size companies have less cause to worry about being investigated. These “black companies” exploit this status as well as young workers’ anxiety over being viewed as irresponsible if they change jobs too soon.

I think that getting more of these black companies to reduce the amount of irrational overtime work will be very difficult. But liquidating the rigidity and conservatism of Japan’s labor market could be a panacea.

shuichi john watanabe
tokyo

The opinions expressed in this letter to the editor are the writer’s own and do not necessarily reflect the policies of The Japan Times.

  • Spudator

    During this economic growth period, a series of pathetic and terrible incidents related to poor working conditions and overtime occurred. So the central government had no choice but to enforce employees’ rights. As a result, on a textbook basis, Japanese workers’ rights appear to be among the strongest in the world.

    Sigh. Why can the Japanese never say what they mean? Presumably, by “pathetic and terrible incidents”, the writer is referring to the time when Japan, yet again disgracing itself on the world stage, was allowing workers to kill themselves through overwork while their employers and local labour standards inspection offices did absolutely nothing to save their lives.

    Where the writer goes wrong is in asserting that “the central government had no choice but to enforce employees’ rights”. Ignoring the absurd implication that it’s somehow optional for the government to enforce the law and comply with the United Nations Charter, which embraces the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and therefore the rights of workers, the problem with this statement is that it erroneously suggests that Japanese workers only achieved protection under the law after working conditions became so bad that people were dying because of them.

    The truth is that Japanese workers have always enjoyed strong legal protection of their rights, the Labour Standards Law being perhaps their most important weapon in this respect, but that employers have constantly ridden roughshod over the law with the connivance of the government, particularly the irresponsibly lax oversight of the labour standards inspection offices. The failure—or, rather, refusal—of the government to enforce existing labour laws, and not an absence of such laws, was the reason companies were able in the recent past to kill their workers through torture by overwork (let’s not pull our punches here), and this lack of enforcement continues to this day.

    But, nowadays, only a few big companies in Japan comply with these strict regulations. They fear crackdowns over labor-law violations. Thanks to the development of IT technology, authorities can easily substantiate overtime work without pay, or other unlawful practices, by checking log-in records on PCs.

    I suspect the only thing these big companies fear is the shame of being exposed a second time as being little better than criminal organisations, and the reprobation this will earn them in the eyes of the world. Respect for the law doesn’t come into it. The fact is that the labour laws are still being wilfully broken by companies big and small despite the writer’s claim that auditing employees’ computer use now makes it easy for the authorities to crack down on violators. IT-based auditing of companies’ employment practices isn’t the issue here; auditing can be done with or without computer access logs. The problem is that the labour standards inspection offices have never done, and still aren’t doing, any auditing to speak of. They’re failing miserably to do the job they’re supposed to do—a job enshrined in their name—of inspecting companies for compliance with legally mandated labour standards.

    As I said in a previous post, the only thing that has to be done to protect workers’ rights is to enforce the labour laws. That’s all that’s needed; and why wouldn’t it be? Protecting people’s rights is the whole point of having laws. The writer’s suggestion that “liquidating the rigidity and conservatism of Japan’s labor market” will remedy the problem is just mumbo-jumbo and a failure to recognise the real issue—that an unenforced law is no law at all.