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OSAKA — The labor ministry on Thursday expanded its investigation into consumer finance company Takefuji Corp. on suspicion it forced staff to work overtime and failed to pay wage premiums, according to ministry officials.

Leading the investigation, the Osaka Labor Bureau said employees in Osaka of the Tokyo-based company averaged around 100 hours of monthly overtime beyond an agreement between labor and management.

The Osaka bureau has been investigating overtime at Takefuji’s Osaka units since July 2001, after being contacted by former employees. It decided to expand the investigation to cover the Tokyo head office and several other offices because it suspects an order was issued in other parts of the country as well, the officials said.

The Osaka bureau has set up a joint team of 80 investigators with the Tokyo bureau to look into the case.

Takefuji’s internal regulations stipulate that salespeople are provided with overtime pay for roughly 25 hours per month for men and six hours for women. Workers may be granted overtime pay beyond these ceilings if an explanation is provided and approval is granted, according to the company.

“When it is busy, overtime work may increase,” said Osamu Sasaki, managing director in charge of public relations at Takefuji. “But I believe there have been no cases where the internal regulations were breached excessively.”

Takefuji, listed on the Tokyo Stock Exchange’s first section, employs about 3,500 people at seven branches and 1,900 outlets throughout the nation.

The ministry has stepped up efforts to clamp down on breaches of overtime rules, issuing a set of guidelines in April 2001 for the appropriate management of overtime and calling on prefectural labor bureaus and labor standards inspections offices to keep a close eye on possible violations.

Experts say that the number of cases in which employees are working overtime without pay is increasing as the economic slump continues.

According to the labor ministry, authorities in 2001 issued roughly 16,000 orders to firms to properly pay overtime to their employees — a record figure and roughly 2.5 times the level of a decade ago.

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