Prime Minister Shinzo Abe denied Tuesday the possibility that he or his office was involved in a controversial survey that oppositional parties claim was aimed at making a so-called discretionary labor proposal look like a system that could improve the nation’s overwork problem.
Abe’s remarks came as the ruling Liberal Democratic Party has been under fire in the Diet over an envisioned bill to expand the labor system under which employees are given a fixed number of overtime hours and are paid on the assumption they work those hours.
The contentious survey, conducted in 2013 by the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry, said the average worker on a discretionary labor contract generally works shorter hours than one on a conventional contract.
But the survey was called into question as it was found to have been conducted on discretionary labor contract workers and those on conventional contracts under different conditions, prompting the Abe government to admit the data was illegitimate.
Speaking at a Lower House Budget Committee session on Tuesday, Abe said, “Neither I nor my (office) staff ordered” the labor ministry to compile the data in question, while apologizing for the 2013 survey in response to a question from Akira Nagatsuma of the opposition Constitutional Democratic Party.
Opposition parties are stepping up their offensive against labor minister Katsunobu Kato, criticizing his ministry for “deliberately manipulating the data.”
Last week, Abe retracted remarks made to the same committee in late January and apologized as the reliability of the data, which supported the expansion of the discretionary labor system, came into doubt.
Nagatsuma, acting leader of the largest opposition force in the Lower House, asked Abe whether he had provided a false answer to the Diet, but Abe said he just answered based on the ministry’s report.
“I withdraw my remarks that were based on the information under scrutiny, but I didn’t withdraw the data itself,” Abe added.
The discretionary labor system is currently applicable to certain business fields, but a proposed labor practice reform bill intends to expand its application.
The government says it would lead to a more flexible working environment, with business lobbies in favor of it. But the system also means that overtime which exceeds the fixed number hours goes unpaid. Opposition parties, including those supported by labor unions, argue it could worsen the problem of overwork, which has led to cases of suicide and other deaths.
In response to Nagatsuma’s call for dropping the idea, Abe expressed his intention to make no change to the government’s original plan to submit the bill to the ongoing Diet session.
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