National / Politics

LDP refuses calls to redo flawed labor survey as debate delays budget talks

by Tomohiro Osaki

Staff Writer

Political wrangling over an error-laden survey compiled by the labor ministry on what is known as the discretionary labor system shows no sign of subsiding, with the government persistently rejecting opposition calls for a redo of the probe said to underline Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s campaign to reshape Japan’s work style.

Six opposition parties are jointly demanding that the government give up on submission of Abe’s labor reform bill to this year’s regular Diet session and redo the survey altogether. The government has so far rejected these calls.

This week the impact of the data fiasco is already plain to see. After hours of high-level negotiations with the opposition ran past midnight Monday without progress, the ruling bloc failed Tuesday to pass a state budget for fiscal 2018 through the Lower House as scheduled. Opposition parties maintain that they can’t accept the budget’s passage unless the government heeds their requests regarding the survey.

The ruling Liberal Democratic Party was seeking to ensure the budget cleared the chamber in its plenary session Wednesday for swift submission to the Upper House, Wataru Takeshita, the LDP’s general affairs chief, said Tuesday.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, for his part, stressed the need for early passage of the record ¥97.7 trillion budget, saying its swift enactment is “the best economic policy.”

At the same time, he expressed reluctance to conduct a fresh probe into the discretionary labor system — a key pillar of Abe’s work-style reform — only reiterating that the government will “scrutinize” the survey in question.

Doubts over the flawed 2013 survey, which the Abe government has cited over the past three years to emphasize the benefits of its proposed labor reform, further escalated Monday as labor minister Katsunobu Kato acknowledged that it contained another 233 errors — adding to the 117 erroneous figures already uncovered by the opposition last week.

Opposition lawmakers say the data irregularities fundamentally undermine the government’s assertion that employees working under the discretionary labor system, paid according to a fixed number of hours instead of the actual hours they work, would be able to work shorter hours than regular employees. If abused, they say, the system could increase unpaid overwork and even stoke the problem of karōshi (death from overwork).

Sadayuki Sakakibara — chairman of top business lobby Keidanren, which has pushed for the expansion of the discretionary labor system — has hinted at support for conducting a fresh probe into the matter, leaving the government and the ruling party “the only players who insist a new survey is unnecessary,” Hajime Yoshikawa, of the Social Democratic Party, told a gathering of opposition lawmakers.

But the government yielding to opposition calls for an outright postponement of the labor reform bill remains an unlikely scenario, as it would cast significant doubts over Abe’s leadership abilities just ahead of the LDP’s leadership election in September, when he is expected to run for a historic third term.

“Having devoted the current session to passing work reform, the prime minister cannot withdraw work reform bills entirely without suffering a major blow to his agenda,” Tobias Harris, a Japan analyst at Teneo Intelligence, the political risk arm of the strategic consultancy Teneo, wrote in his email newsletter.

As discord over the labor reform bill continued to intensify, Takashi Endo, Diet affairs chief of conservative opposition Nippon Ishin no Kai, noted that Monday’s hours-long negotiations over when to pass the budget had forced many bureaucrats to wait late into the night. Endo called the dispute an unproductive “farce.”

“We’re supposed to debate work style reform, but doesn’t the ongoing petty wrangling mean we are doing the exact opposite of what such reforms are intended to achieve?” a sarcastic Endo said in a statement.