• Kyodo

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Thursday’s decision by the nation’s largest labor federation to effectively accept a controversial government plan to adopt merit-based pay for highly skilled jobs was apparently caused by high-handed government tactics that left the labor union no choice.

“If it’s not revised, it would only lead to longer working hours,” Rikio Kozu, head of the Japanese Trade Union Confederation (Rengo), told Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at his office Thursday.

“I will take the request properly and consider it,” Abe was quoted as telling him.

That was when the two sides effectively agreed on the government’s apparent all or nothing proposal.

Under the proposal, certain highly skilled workers with an annual income of at least ¥10.75 million will be exempted from working-hour regulations, including overtime pay. They will be paid based on performance, not on hours worked.

The government has insisted the work rule will allow certain well-paid skilled employees, such as securities dealers, to work at their own discretion. But opposition parties have criticized the bill as a “zero overtime pay bill” that will result in Japan’s most famous workplace hazard: overwork.

The bill is likely to give the Abe administration a welcome boost. Abe is mired in scandals and gaffes that led to his party’s historic drubbing in the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election earlier this month. If the Liberal Democratic Party-led coalition rams the bill through the Diet in the extraordinary session this fall without the backing of Rengo and the opposition parties, it is likely to trigger even more public criticism.

The government has included some steps to ensure workers’ health, but Rengo has called for tougher steps , such as making it mandatory for workers to rest at least 104 days a year.

The umbrella organization for the nation’s labor unions has been against the so-called merit system from the beginning.

But asking for revisions has been viewed by some members as giving the government a de facto green light to push for its passage, albeit with some changes.

The rift was clear as the Japan Community Union Federation, which belongs to Rengo, lodged a rare protest at Rengo’s headquarters, saying in a statement that seeking revisions was not its original goal.

Rengo, however, has been secretly urging the government to give up the merit-based pay system, only to be rejected, saying it cannot withdraw the clause symbolic to the revision.

Rengo’s dilemma was deep as the Abe administration has also threatened to submit the bill together with another piece of legislation the labor union has worked hard to push. A cap on overtime that the government, the nation’s largest business lobby and Rengo agreed to in March.

“We were asked to either give them all up or accept both plans” of capping overtime and introducing the merit-based pay system, a Rengo official said.

Another Rengo executive said, “If we don’t sit at the negotiating table, it’ll (pass) the Diet without any revision. That’s the scary part” of the Abe administration, which is backed by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and Komeito.

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