National / Politics

Japan’s ruling bloc pushes labor bill through the Lower House amid worries over karōshi

by Tomohiro Osaki

Staff Writer

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s ruling coalition pushed a bill through the Lower House on Thursday that the government says will represent the biggest shake-up of Japan’s labor laws in its postwar history, brushing off criticism from the opposition that it risks worsening the nation’s entrenched problem of karōshi (death from overwork).

One of Abe’s main priorities for this Diet session, the bill is a comprehensive legal package that the government claims will slash overwork, increase wages for nonregular workers and achieve a more flexible work style.

The legislation — backed by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party-Komeito pair and conservative opposition Nippon Ishin no Kai — cleared the plenary session of the Lower House and will be sent to the Upper House for further deliberation.

“Workplaces reliant on the culture of long hours no longer fulfill the need of employees and don’t boost productivity,” LDP lawmaker Shigeyuki Goto told the Lower House plenary session.

With more and more people needing to juggle work and life in a rapidly aging society, “the reform aims to create a society where people can work in a manner compatible with their various needs and circumstances,” Goto said.

Abe has said the labor bill, if enacted, will represent the “first major labor reform in 70 years” since the 1947 enactment of the Labor Standards Act, characterizing it as a centerpiece of this year’s ongoing Diet session.

Giving up on its promised passage never looked like an option for Abe, whose grip on power has increasingly been thrown into question in the wake of a litany of governmental scandals — including his own alleged cronyism — ahead of the September LDP presidential election.

The bill is not without controversy.

While it would cap the amount of legally permissible overtime at a yearly 360 hours in principle and penalize employers for not complying, the bill will at the same time usher in a system previously known as “white-collar exemption,” whereby workers will be paid based on their performance, not the hours they worked.

Now re-branded as a “high-level professional system,” the controversial framework, long pushed by the nation’s business community, exempts those described as “specialist” personnel with an annual income of more than ¥10.75 million — such as financial dealers and analysts — from work-hour regulations.

While it enables eligible individuals to work more flexibly, the system basically does away with the concept of overtime pay, stoking concerns it may encourage unpaid overwork and, as kin of karōshi victims say, effectively “legalize working long hours.”

“A hell will await us” if the bill is enacted, Emiko Teranishi, head of a group comprising family members of karōshi victims, told the health committee of the Lower House last week.

Teranishi, who was widowed by a work-driven suicide of her husband, fears the white-collar exemption system, once instituted, may be expanded to apply to a wider range of professions with lower salaries.

Noting the system will likely absolve companies of an obligation to keep records of hours worked by their employees, Teranishi also said it could make karōshi “a matter of self-responsibility” and make it easier for employers to evade responsibility. Under such a scenario, chances are people “won’t qualify for compensation even if our loved ones die of overwork,” she said.

On Thursday, opposition parties protested stridently against the bill’s passage.

“It would be unforgivable to leave unregulated a law that risks harming the lives and health of workers,” Kaichi Hasegawa of the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan told the plenary session.

The government, for its part, has sought assurances by explaining that the high-level professional system will be implemented only with the consent of each individual and accompanied by a special measure designed to ensure their health.

Another pillar of the bill is a measure meant to curb what Goto called the “discriminatory” treatment by firms against nonregular employees, including part-timers and temporary staff, who have long been disadvantaged by salaries lower than their full-time counterparts, despite their performance and abilities. The reform “will guarantee fairer treatment unswayed by the employment status of workers,” Goto said.

The work-style reform has also been controversial because of revelations of sloppy data management.

In a major compromise, Abe in February removed the expansion of a so-called discretionary labor system — which was initially touted as a key component of the reform — from the bill after it emerged key government data used to emphasize its benefit contained multiple statistic errors.