Japan sets goals for companies to prevent deaths from overwork

Kyodo, JIJI

A health ministry panel unveiled a draft plan Thursday to have at least 10 percent of companies introduce fixed rest hours for employees by 2020 as the country seeks to eliminate karōshi (death from overwork).

Setting numerical targets is expected to help promote the so-called interval system amid calls from relatives of people who have died as a result of the country’s notoriously long working hours.

Under the system, workers are granted a guaranteed interval between the end of their working day and the start of their next shift.

But the draft plan did not state how long employees should rest. The European Union, for instance, requires employers in member states to ensure their staff get at least 11 consecutive hours of daily rest.

The ministry will also aim to raise awareness of the system, which is already in place at a limited number of companies, to over 80 percent.

The government plans to adopt the latest plan for revising countermeasures for overwork deaths at a Cabinet meeting this summer.

The goals were included in a draft revision to an outline of measures to prevent such deaths, presented to a meeting of an expert panel comprising representatives from both labor and management, as well as bereaved families of workers who died from overwork.

At the meeting, a labor representative said the numerical targets should be adopted from the standpoint of preventing such deaths. A family member called for government efforts to make the details of the system widely known.

A health ministry survey in 2017 showed only 1.4 percent of companies had introduced an interval system and more than 90 percent said they had no plans to introduce or consider such a system.

The survey also showed that 40.2 percent of the companies were not even aware of the interval system.

Measures against workplace harassment and monitoring of companies suspected of overworking employees were also included in the plan.

The draft designated specific professions with long working hours — including drivers, teachers and employees in the medical and media industries — as needing special attention in order to prevent overwork-related deaths.

It newly called for measures to create a better working environment for young workers.

The issue of karōshi came into the spotlight after the 2015 suicide of a 24-year-old employee at Dentsu Inc. was recognized by labor inspectors as due to overwork, sparking a national debate on the severe working conditions endured by many people in the country.

Japan saw 107 karōshi cases, including 84 suicides and suicide attempts prompted by overwork, in fiscal 2016. Experts say the figures are only the tip of the iceberg as many cases go unreported.