The Dentsu ‘karoshi’ case goes to trial

It is significant that the alleged violation of labor rules at Dentsu Inc. in connection with the 2015 suicide of an overworked employee will be tried in a regular court proceeding, instead of being given a summary court order for fines as sought by prosecutors. The high-profile case — involving the nation’s leading advertising agency — can serve as a catalyst for enhanced efforts to end health-endangering overwork. The court needs to expose how the labor regulations were violated at Dentsu, and companies need to learn from the case and try to protect the health of their own workers.

Matsuri Takahashi, who joined Dentsu in April 2015, killed herself that December at age 24 by jumping from her condominium in Tokyo. It was later determined that she had been suffering from depression caused by overwork. Labor standards inspectors found out that she had worked 105 hours of overtime in a single month before developing the disorder. It was subsequently discovered that the company had its employees, including Takahashi, work more overtime than allowed under an agreement with its labor union. The closely watched case at the major company reignited calls to prevent karoshi (death from overwork) and drove the government to push for a legal cap on overtime hours.

Earlier this month, prosecutors summarily indicted Dentsu on charges of violating the Labor Standards Law but chose not to indict senior Dentsu officials, including Takahashi’s superior, for their role in the violations on the grounds that their responsibility could not be deemed malicious. A summary indictment normally leads to closed-door, document-based proceedings, resulting in a summary court order for fines. However, the Tokyo Summary Court said such simplified proceedings would be “inadequate” for the Dentsu case and decided to put it to an open trial.

The prosecutors are said to have followed precedent established in similar cases involving labor standards law violations, in which businesses were given summary indictments for getting their employees to work illegally long hours. However, such decisions by prosecutors were overturned by the Osaka Summary Court in two cases in March — just as public interest in the problem of overwork increased as a result of the Dentsu case. The Tokyo Summary Court is believed to have followed suit out of the belief that a summary proceeding would not be enough to unravel what was happening at the ad agency.

During the upcoming trial, the prosecutors are expected to seek fines on Dentsu for the violations — just as in the summary indictment. Unlike in a summary proceeding, however, Dentsu officials will be held to explain in the courtroom how they managed the work hours of their employees or whether and how they recognized the situation of illegal overtime work. To prevent similar practices from being repeated, a detailed look into who ordered the illegal overtime work and how will be important. For the Dentsu case to serve as a lesson for others, the trial needs to shed light on the process that led to the overwork.

Deaths — including suicides — involving overworked company employees have been a serious problem since the late 1980s. In fiscal 2016 alone, 107 people were determined to have died from overwork, while suicides or suicide attempts by 84 others were blamed on mental problems induced by overwork — and these cases that were officially recognized for compensation under the work-related accident insurance program are believed to represent just a tip of the iceberg.

A 2014 law made it the national government’s responsibility to take steps to prevent karoshi, but the legislation didn’t provide for regulations or penalties to achieve this goal. A government report released last year showed that nearly one in four companies surveyed had employees working more than 80 hours of overtime a month — one of the criteria beyond which a worker’s death can be linked to overwork. Earlier, Dentsu was held responsible for the suicide of another overworked employee in 1991 in a Supreme Court ruling that recognized the employer’s duty to protect the workers’ physical and mental health from overwork. However, subsequent cases at many other companies show that the practice of overworking employees to the detriment of their health did not go away.

All employers should be reminded of their duty to protect the health and safety of their workers. They should take their cue from the upcoming Dentsu trial and reflect on their own practices.