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Tomoru Yamaguchi, director of the working conditions division at the Japanese Trade Union Confederation (Rengo), knew the situation was bad. He just didn’t think it was this bad.

With an increasing number of people being forced to work overtime without extra pay amid poor corporate earnings, the labor organization carried out a weeklong campaign that ended Sunday, urging employers to stop the practice as a violation of basic worker rights.

It placed overhead ads on Tokyo and Sapporo trains carrying messages such as, “Judging from my pay slip, you would think there’s no overtime at my company.”

The labor organization also carried out surveys and opened a hotline inviting corporate employees to speak out freely about what is happening in their workplace.

“What we are faced with is a discount sale of labor, with company employees working appallingly long hours, while many people are unemployed,” Yamaguchi said. “This situation should not be tolerated.”

According to Rengo’s 2002 survey on 23,000 members of affiliated labor unions, half of the respondents worked overtime without pay, to the tune of an average of 29.6 hours a month.

The same survey estimated that one in 30 male workers in their early 30s put in more than 3,000 hours a year — a level recognized by the Labor Standards Bureau of the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry as conducive to “karoshi,” or death from overwork.

But many of the calls to Rengo’s special hotline — which at some 100 a day were about 40 percent more than the number received by a Rengo hotline a year ago — were not from the workers themselves, but family members or friends worried about the workers’ health.

Many of the callers said they had been asked by the workers not to identify the employers, according to a telephone consultant.

“The employer will hold a witch hunt to try to find the traitor,” Yamaguchi said. “There was one bank employee who called the hotline himself, but instead of naming his bank, suggested that the (labor ministry’s inspection division) inspect a different bank, saying unpaid overtime work is a situation common to all banks.”

Given such worker fears, Rengo does not plan to directly confront employers. Instead, it provides information on labor groups that could help or send a staff member to accompany the caller to the Labor Standards Bureau.

An increasing number of overwork-related accidents, including those involving truck drivers, has put the labor ministry on alert as well. Ministry officials have reportedly assured Rengo they will act if they are provided details about employers that violate labor laws.

Yamaguchi said the problem of unpaid overtime work is aggravated by the merit-based pay system, which is being adopted by an increasing number of firms.

He said the companies are using the system to keep personnel costs low.

“Under the merit-based wage system, workers are made to work extra on their own time, because an atmosphere is created at the workplace that those who ask for overtime pay are considered incompetent,” he said.

Yamaguchi cited a survey showing that 20 percent of workers in private-sector companies believe they are being hired on a “discretionary work” basis, in which their work hours and means of accomplishing their tasks are left up to them.

“The current situation is illegal,” he said. “By law, each company is obliged to report to authorities the number of employees hired on a discretionary work basis, including those in sales or research positions. Labor ministry data show that such workers account for only 4 percent” of the total workforce.

In a speech on the annual labor-management talks for this year, Rengo Chairman Kiyoshi Sasamori declared that the confederation would consider filing a formal accusation with the Labor Standards Bureau against employers that refuse to pay overtime wages when they are warranted.

Citing recent research by the Japan Productivity Center for Socio-economic Development, a private-sector think tank, Sasamori stressed that more than 1 million jobs could be created to cover overtime work now performed by company employees who are not being paid accordingly.

The problem of unpaid overtime work is drawing increasing public scrutiny.

In January, Toyota Motor Corp. received a warning from labor authorities over the situation in their Aichi Prefecture plants.

In another development, the director of a nursing home in Hamura, western Tokyo, was arrested this month on suspicion that he violated the Labor Standards Law by having his employees work overtime without extra pay.

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