The labor ministry referred advertising agency Dentsu Inc. and one of its executives to prosecutors on Wednesday on suspicion of having a 24-year-old employee work illegally long hours, resulting in her suicide.
The decision by the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry came unusually fast after the ministry raided the advertising giant on Nov. 7 following the overwork-related suicide of Matsuri Takahashi, who killed herself in Tokyo on Christmas Day last year.
The executive who was referred to prosecutors was Takahashi’s supervisor.
At Dentsu, more than 30 employees were found to have been forced to work excessive and unlawful amounts of overtime, which they underreported by more than 100 hours per month. The ministry will continue its probe on the possible involvement of other Dentsu executives, sources close to the matter said.
“We take the incident seriously,” the company said in a statement. “We offer our apology to those concerned for causing such a situation.”
Takahashi, who showed signs of depression prior to her death, was found to have worked overtime in excess of the maximum number of hours allowed under a labor-management agreement.
In a previous case in 1991, a 24-year-old Dentsu employee killed himself due to overwork, while the advertising agency’s Chubu and Kansai branches as well as its Tokyo headquarters were acknowledged to have engaged in illegal overtime practices and had been advised by labor authorities from 2010 to 2015 to correct their conduct.
After joining Dentsu in April 2015, Takahashi jumped to her death from the upper floor of a corporate dormitory on Dec. 25 that year, according to a lawyer for her family.
The Tokyo labor bureau in September this year recognized her suicide as a case of karoshi, meaning death from overwork, as her overtime hours had significantly increased from some 40 hours a month to over 100 hours before she began to suffer from depression.
Her family argues that she was also a victim of power harassment, with her boss allegedly telling her, “You have too little capacity (to handle work) if you find the current volume of work hard to handle.”
In a statement, Takahashi’s 53-year-old mother Yukimi called on the company to “make sure it implemented efforts to end long working hours so there will not be a victim like Matsuri in the future.”
Japan’s Labor Standards Law stipulates working hours must, in principle, not exceed 40 hours per week or eight hours per day. To have employees work longer, a labor-management agreement must be concluded beforehand.
A man in his 40s who left Dentsu several years ago urged company executives to think hard about how the agency is run.
“Looking back, the way I worked was insane,” he said. “The management must reflect on their conduct by taking seriously the fact that it has led to suicides of employees due to overwork.”
The labor authorities have accelerated their probe as the government is working on labor reforms amid growing criticism against excessive overtime and other work-related issues.
The speed of Wednesday’s move was surprising. The authorities took about a month to pass the case to prosecutors after raiding the Dentsu offices.
Establishing a criminal case involving illegal overtime work at a big-name company like Dentsu, which employs around 7,000 people, normally takes a year or longer, a former labor inspector said.
The labor ministry is now looking into whether Dentsu systemically forced its employees to report their work hours as being shorter than the actual figures.
A senior labor ministry official said, “We’ll thoroughly investigate in order to respond to the wishes of Takahashi’s family.”