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How much time does it take to save a life?

by Jake Adelstein

Special To The Japan Times

How much time does it take to save a life? Five hours? Five minutes? Five seconds?

According to a government white paper on karōshi (death from overwork) in October 2016, more than 20 percent of companies said monthly overtime per employee exceeded 80 hours, a threshold believed to increase the risk of death. Working more than 100 hours of overtime a month significantly raises that risk.

Matsuri Takahashi, a 24-year-old employee at advertising agency Dentsu Inc., worked 105 hours in a one-month period before jumping to her death from a company dormitory. According to media reports, a labor standards inspection office in Tokyo’s Minato Ward determined that overwork pushed Takahashi to take her own life after she suffered a mental breakdown.

In December, the labor ministry referred Dentsu and one of its executives to prosecutors on suspicion of forcing Takahashi to work illegally long hours.

Japan’s Labor Standards Law stipulates that working hours must, in principle, not exceed 40 hours per week, or eight hours per day. For employees to work longer, a labor-management agreement must be concluded beforehand.

In an attempt put an end to excessive overtime, a government panel is now proposing to cap overtime at 100 hours per month — just five hours less than the overtime Takahashi clocked before her death.

It’s clear, however, that this does little to solve the problem — just ask anyone who has ever held down a regular job.

It’s easy to see why there’s such a disconnect between appearance and reality. For a start, there’s only one labor expert on the government panel that has been tasked with labor reform.

What’s more, constitutional scholar Setsu Kobayashi believes the Liberal Democratic Party’s proposed package of reforms will also remove paid overtime in some occupations altogether.

Hiroshi Kawahito, an expert on death from overwork who has represented the families of victims against Dentsu on two occasions, says about 200 cases are recognized every year.

“The Dentsu case is just the tip of the iceberg,” Kawahito says, adding that it’s likely that another 10,000 cases go unreported.

In order to prevent such cases in future, Kawahito believes employers need to recognize that working long hours is both inefficient and deadly.

Kawahito also believes the government has to put a realistic cap on labor hours and enforce them, and urges employees to understand their labor rights.

Haruki Kono, a representative of POSSE, a nonprofit organization that provides advice and support to workers facing unethical or illegal treatment at the hands of employers, has little faith in patchwork solutions changing much.

“Companies aren’t severely punished for overworking their employees. In fact, almost any written contract between an employee and employer can nullify the legal eight-hour working day,” Kono says. “There aren’t enough labor inspectors. There are no penalties for faking the work logs or forcing the employees to fake them. It makes proving a case of death from overwork extremely difficult.”

I couldn’t have said that better myself.

Recently, however, labor inspectors have been stepping up to the plate. They raided the headquarters of Dentsu in Tokyo as well as branch offices nationwide in November last year, suspecting the company of committing other labor violations. It was a slap in the face to a company that has long thought of itself as untouchable.

Labor inspectors have the power to make arrests. According to a report in the Asahi Shimbun in March 2012, a labor standards inspection office in Ishikawa Prefecture arrested the former chief executive officer of a transportation company for failing to pay minimum wages worth ¥370,000 to three employees.

The CEO had initially refused to discuss the matter with the labor inspectors. The arrest certainly got his attention.

Maybe it’s time for labor inspectors to use their powers of investigation and arrest more often. The humiliation of an arrest and punishment for labor violations might make other companies think twice about working their employees to death.

It’s time for Japan to take action to end death from overwork. It’s certainly going to need more than the introduction of Premium Friday, a new campaign in which employees are encouraged to clock out a few hours early on the last Friday of the month. It’s time to identify and punish companies that run their employees into the ground.

The clock is ticking.

Dark Side of the Rising Sun is a monthly column that takes a behind-the-scenes look at news in Japan.