Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Wednesday refused an opposition party’s request to dismiss labor minister Takumi Nemoto after his ministry’s faulty jobs data handling led to the large-scale underpayment of work-related benefits.
“I want minister Nemoto to continue to take a leading role in swiftly repaying the missing benefits, thoroughly investigating the case and preventing a recurrence,” Abe told a plenary session of the Lower House
He made the comment in response to questions from Yukio Edano, who heads the opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, which along with other opposition parties is stepping up pressure on the Abe administration in the run-up to the summer’s Upper House elections.
The government came under criticism after it was revealed late last year faulty labor data had been used for more than a decade.
“I take seriously the responsibility for not having detected the erroneous procedures that have lasted for years,” Abe said.
The monthly labor survey is used as the basis to decide benefits, including unemployment insurance and workers’ compensation. As a result, it emerged the government failed to pay a total of more than ¥56 billion ($512 million) to more than 20 million people.
The prime minister said that the government is currently checking whether the incident has had an impact on other economic indicators, though it confirmed there has been no impact on gross domestic product data.
Having initially approved its draft budget for next fiscal year from April on Dec. 21, the government was forced to rework its figures because of the erroneous data.
Labor minister Nemoto explained during the plenary session he first learned of the matter on Dec. 20 but said it was difficult to know at that stage whether it would have an impact on the draft budget.
Abe said he was briefed on the matter by the ministry on Dec. 28 and instructed officials to look into it.
A third-party investigative committee of lawyers and statistics experts appointed by the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare concluded last week said that there was no definitive evidence that the incident was caused by a systematic cover-up by the ministry.
But the ministry has decided to launch a new review after it was found that officials in the ministry were involved in the probe even though it was supposed to be an independent, third-party investigation.
Around 25 of the 37 officials had been interviewed by ministry staff during the investigation. Top ministry bureaucrats, including assistant vice minister Akira Miyakawa and deputy vice minister Yumiko Jozuka, were present at some of the interviews.
“This incident is extremely regrettable and I deeply apologize to the public for causing trouble,” Nemoto said in the session.
In the case of the monthly labor survey, the labor ministry is required by law to gather results from all businesses in the country with 500 or more employees, but in Tokyo it had only surveyed a third of the roughly 1,400 such businesses since 2004.
The lack of data from major firms, which usually pay higher wages than smaller companies, meant nationwide wage figures appeared lower than they actually should have.
After correcting the survey data, the monthly average for cash earnings per person was raised by up to 1.2 percentage points.
The labor ministry has disciplined dozens of officials after the probe concluded that the publication of the false work data violated the statistics law.