National / Social Issues | FYI

Government bill on power harassment takes aim at Japan's workplace woes

by Satoshi Sugiyama

Staff Writer

A supervisor berates employees as slackers and incompetents. A president taunts, punches and forces a worker to write a letter of resignation — leading the employee to commit suicide. A whistle-blower exposes an illegal cartel, only to be banished and given mundane tasks to perform for over 20 years.

These are real-life examples of workplace harassment — known in Japan as pawahara (power harassment) — that have come to light in Japanese courtrooms over the years.

Earlier this month, the Abe administration adopted a draft bill requiring companies to set up protocols for preventing and dealing with abuses of power. If it becomes law, the legislation will take force within a year for big companies and within three years for midsize and small businesses.

Bureaucrats say the move shows the government understands power harassment is a serious social problem. Critics say it doesn’t go far enough.

How serious is the problem?

Power harassment started becoming a major issue over 10 years ago. Complaints to labor bureaus skyrocketed from 22,153 in 2006 to 70,917 in 2016 — up more than threefold.

In a 2016 government survey, roughly 33 percent of respondents said they had experienced power harassment in the past three years.

How is power harassment defined?

In broad terms, it refers to workplace harassment. But in government speak, as defined in the bill, pawahara is the act of causing physical or emotional pain, or demoralizing the workforce by exploiting one’s position. To meet the criteria, behavior has to be considered out of line in day-to-day business.

In 2012 the labor ministry listed six examples of power harassment: physical attacks, verbal abuse, deliberate isolation from other employees, making excessive demands, making too few demands, and infringing on the privacy of others.

What does the legislation propose?

The bill revises a law designed to improve the working environment for women.

Among other pending details, the government would obligate employers to properly handle harassment claims, such as by installing counseling and training programs for both workers and managers. Those seeking counseling or involved in a pending case would be protected by law from punishment or dismissal.

In addition, employers need to insert clauses on workplace harassment in the company rules and inform all staff of the new policy, said Keiichiro Ueda, deputy director of the Equal Employment Opportunity Division at the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry.

But the specific guidelines — including the legal definition of power harassment itself, apparently — will be decided after the Diet passes the bill.

“The guidelines would define what constitutes ‘power harassment,'” Ueda said. “The objective is to demonstrate the thresholds and delineate what companies have to do.”

Ueda hopes the guidelines to be hammered out will help companies determine whether a complaint should be considered a case of power harassment.

Is the draft bill significant?

This is the first time the government has weighed in on workplace harassment by proposing legislation, Ueda said.

The bill essentially signals the government is committed to dealing not only with workplace harassment, but all types of unwanted conduct, including sexual harassment.

“Power harassment is representative of broader social issues,” he said. “This legislation is a starting point for the government to take further action in dealing with harassment.”

Megumi Nakatsuji, a labor and social security attorney based in Tokyo, applauded the move. Although several companies have introduced similar plans on their own, she said some remain ill-equipped to process harassment claims.

“I think the move was good since the plan covers all companies,” Nakatsuji said.

Does the bill penalize firms that refuse to comply?

No, the bill does not include any punitive measures, Ueda said.

However, the labor ministry official said the government can issue administrative guidance to pressure a company to comply. If that fails to rectify the situation, the government can shame it by releasing its name to the public, he said.

But some experts say the name-and-shame approach doesn’t solve everything.

Megumi Imamura, another Tokyo-based attorney who has dealt with workplace harassment cases, thinks the legislation is a step forward, though any administrative guidance may not go far enough in prompting companies to modify their working environments.

“Most of my clients work in small businesses,” Imamura said. “So there are cases where the top executive is the harasser, so I’m not so sure if an internal counseling office would solve the matter.”

Nakatsuji, though, said imposing stiff penalties may not be a solution either.

Harassers and companies alike have been found liable in criminal and civil cases.

What prompted the government to draw up the bill now?

One factor is the government’s overall push for labor reform. Last year, it enacted the work-style reform law to limit overtime to 100 hours per month to promote productivity and prevent overwork. The law takes effect on Monday.

This discourse generated momentum for taking up the workplace harassment issue, Ueda said.

Another factor is the fact that power harassment has been growing.

Nakatsuji said complaints soared as both workplace harassment and public awareness of it grew. Today’s work culture — typified by overwork combined with little support from supervisors and colleagues — may be creating a toxic environment that induces power harassment, she said.

Cultural influences may be playing a role as well.

Ueda, the labor ministry official, said Japanese companies have been run based on sustained, long-term relationships between employees and management. In an environment like that, employees may feel that it is imperative to obey their bosses no matter how unreasonable their workloads become.

Another looming factor that could be cause for friction is diversification, he said.

“The workforce in Japan is growing diverse, and with lifetime employment crumbling, not everyone is sharing the same values in the office,” he said. “So there will inevitably be more friction (in such an environment).”

What’s next?

Ueda said the government’s highest priority right now is to focus on laying the legal groundwork for dealing with power harassment cases. It is also considering initiatives to set up a counseling hotline that would be available at night and on weekends.

“The key thing is for people to know what power harassment actually is,” Nakatsuji said. “In a single sentence, it impairs the dignity of people and is nothing but risk and hampers productivity for companies.”

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