National / Politics

Government considers delaying labor reforms for one year after survey scandal

Kyodo

The government is considering postponing the implementation of parts of a labor reform bill for a year after acknowledging fundamental flaws in its work hours survey, sources close to the matter said Wednesday.

Opposition parties have accused the government of deliberately designing the survey to make it look like expanding the “discretionary labor” system would help lessen Japan’s chronic overwork problem. They argue it could have the opposite effect.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has apologized for citing the erroneous survey in Diet debate.

Under the discretionary labor system, employees are given a fixed number of overtime hours and are paid on the assumption that they worked those hours, meaning any further overtime goes unpaid.

The government says this would lead to a more flexible working environment, and business lobbies support the move. But labor unions say it could worsen a culture of overwork that has led to suicides and other deaths.

According to the sources, the yearlong delay would apply to the expansion of that system and the start of a separate system allowing certain high-paid professionals to be exempted from a legal overtime cap. Both would come into effect in April 2020 instead of April next year.

The government has decided that it needs more time to properly prepare for all the changes, including by making sure employers are fully informed, the sources said.

But opposition parties are trying to seize on the delay to support their argument that the contentious provisions should be removed from the working practices reform bill altogether.

The bill has yet to be formally introduced to the Diet, and debate on labor reform in the House of Representatives Budget Committee has so far been dominated by the flawed survey.

The ruling and opposition parties all agreed Wednesday that they would hold an intensive committee session on labor reform on Thursday afternoon.

The secretaries general of Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party and the smaller Komeito party, which make up the ruling coalition, agreed to thoroughly scrutinize the contents of the bill before putting it up for Cabinet approval, after which it can be formally debated in the Diet.

The Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare is aiming to get the bill approved by the coalition next week so it can be submitted to the Diet early next month.

Fired up by the survey issue, opposition lawmakers are likely to fight the bill’s progress at every turn, meaning enactment of the bill into law could be delayed until June at the earliest. The current Diet session is set to end in late June.

The survey on working hours conducted by the labor ministry in 2013 concluded that the average worker on a discretionary labor contract generally works shorter hours than one on a conventional contract.

But the ministry said this week that it used two different methods to collect the respective data, making the survey statistically unsound.

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