National / Politics

Japanese lawmakers from both sides lay into labor ministry over costly jobs data debacle

Kyodo

Ruling and opposition lawmakers on Thursday criticized the labor ministry for releasing faulty jobs data for more than a decade in the first Diet discussions held on the issue since the scandal broke in December.

Labor minister Takumi Nemoto apologized for the debacle, which led to more than 20 million people being underpaid on work-related benefits and cast doubt on the accuracy of government statistics.

“I deeply apologize to the people for the inconvenience,” he told an out-of-session meeting of the House of Representatives labor committee.

Keigo Masuya, a member of the ruling coalition’s Komeito, condemned the ministry for continuing to release its monthly labor survey, claiming officials knowingly neglected to collect enough data.

“This is systematic involvement and a systematic cover-up,” he told the meeting.

The Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry is required to gather results from all businesses in the country with 500 or more employees. But in Tokyo, it had only polled a third of the roughly 1,400 businesses matching that criteria since 2004.

The shortage of data from major firms, which usually pay higher wages than smaller companies, meant the nation’s wage figures were calculated as lower than they actually should have been.

Last year, the ministry quietly began tweaking the survey results to make them seem as if it had collected the necessary data, leading to a sudden surge in the wage figures.

Opposition forces criticized the tweak as “fake Abenomics,” suggesting it was motivated by a desire to make Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s economic policies appear more successful.

While Nemoto and dozens of ministry officials have been disciplined, an investigative panel of statistics experts and lawyers concluded earlier this week that there is no definitive evidence of a systematic cover-up.

As for the panel’s hearing, the ministry revealed Thursday that about a third of the officials under investigation had been interviewed by ministry staff without the presence of outside experts.

Chinami Nishimura, a member of the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, the main opposition party, dismissed the probe as having been rushed and lacking insight on crucial details, including motive.

“I’m doubtful of the impartiality of the panel. It seems to me that the panel was set up as an alibi,” she said.

Komeito’s Masuya was also critical of the panel’s findings, saying it was “lined with excuses from the ministry.”

“This issue should be investigated until everything has been cleared up,” he added.

The government has said it will retroactively pay the more than ¥53 billion ($480 million) it failed to distribute to the beneficiaries of state-funded insurance programs.

People enrolled in unemployment insurance will begin receiving the additional payments in March, while payments for workers’ compensation and sailors’ insurance will begin in April, a senior ministry official said.

The senior official said, however, that there were more than 10 million people that the ministry could not locate and that it would take some time to find their addresses.

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