Families of ‘karoshi’ victims lambaste overtime cap recommendations as legalizing unhealthy working hours

by Tomoko Otake

Staff Writer

Families of people who have died from overwork blasted a report adopted Tuesday by a government labor reform panel, saying its call for creating a monthly overtime cap of 100 hours could effectively legalize long working hours at the expense of workers’ health.

Emiko Teranishi, 68, head of the nationwide network of family members of karoshi (death from overwork) victims, said the panel’s recommendations for limiting overtime feature a number of loopholes.

The panel, chaired by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and created to reduce overtime and promote work-life balance, recommended creating several overtime restrictions and — for the first time — introducing punitive measures for companies who violate them.

Specifically, the panel set the overtime limit at 45 hours per month and 360 hours per year. However, during busy periods, employees can work up to 100 hours of overtime in a single month, and up to 80 hours each month for a duration of two to six months. The maximum overtime per year should not surpass 720 hours, the panel said.

Such overtime limits, however, do not include work on holidays, which means employees could work a maximum of 960 hours in overtime per year.

“The overtime cap proposed by the panel rubber-stamps and legalizes long working hours,” Teranishi told The Japan Times on Wednesday.

Teranishi lost her husband to suicide resulting from work pressures 20 years ago. The then-manager of a soba noodle restaurant in Kyoto Prefecture, Teranishi’s husband became sleep deprived and depressed as a recession hit, sales plummeted and work burdens increased.

“There’s no daily limit or weekly limit set for overtime,” Teranishi said. “Even if you are forced to put in five or 10 hours of overtime for days on end, it still won’t be illegal. That’s frightening.”

Yukimi Takahashi, the mother of Matsuri Takahashi, a 24-hour-old female worker at ad giant Dentsu Inc. who committed suicide in December 2015 due to depression brought on by overwork, said the 100-hour cap was too high.

She cited a health ministry notice issued in 2001 saying that a worker logging overtime of 100 hours per month or 80 hours per month for two to six months consecutively has a higher likelihood of having a stroke or heart attack.

“A hundred hours is an extremely long time,” Takahashi said in a statement released through her lawyer on Tuesday. “It means that if you work 20 days a month, you work for five hours extra daily on top of an eight-hour shift. You come home at 11:20 p.m.

“My daughter wrote, ‘If you are in the office for 20 hours a day, you are no longer sure what you are living for,’ and ‘I don’t know whether I’m working to live or living to work.’ … To live, people need enough sleep. We should never create a law that approves long working hours.”

Families also criticized a clause in the report that excluded medical doctors, professional drivers and construction workers from overwork restrictions for five years.

Noriko Nakahara, the widow of pediatrician Toshiro Nakahara, who leapt to his death from a hospital building in 1999 due to depression brought on by overwork, was incredulous over the panel’s recommendations, blasting them as “unacceptable.”

“Is the government expecting more people to die for the next five years?” she asked.

Dr. Naoto Ueyama, who represents a labor union of doctors, likewise protested the government’s exemption of doctors.

Groups representing hospitals had lobbied for such an exemption, saying that doctors must respond to emergencies and that their services are in short supply in remote areas.

“Doctors working excessively long hours threaten patient safety,” Ueyama said in a statement. “If the government is to postpone action for five years, it needs to show concrete steps how it can curb excessive burdens on them” over that time frame.