National

Japan bolsters fight against workplace harassment, but laws lack punitive measures

Kyodo

The Diet revised various pieces of legislation Wednesday in an effort to bolster measures against workplace harassment, obligating companies to combat increasingly prevalent reports of bullying and abuse of power.

Under revisions to five laws, aspects of workplace harassment were specifically defined and made impermissible for the first time. But none of the legislation prescribes punitive measures that can be taken against violators.

Even so, the new regulations set a significant first legislative step in a country where various forms of workplace harassment had been left untouched for years.

They prohibit any kind of mistreatment of workers who make allegations against people in more senior positions, or discrimination of workers who allege they have been victims of sexual harassment. Pregnant women or women who have returned to work after being on maternity leave are now similarly protected.

The revisions also require, for the first time, businesses to take preventive measures against bosses who abuse their power in the workplace, defining the offenses as “excessive words and behavior by people who take advantage of their superior positions, harming the working environment.”

The government will set guidelines on measures to be taken by companies, such as putting in place consultation programs, and give specific examples of types of power abuses. The government received feedback from companies saying it is difficult to draw a line between harassment and stern but fair management.

Large companies will be obliged to introduce the preventive steps, possibly by next April. Small and midsize companies are requested to tackle the issue under the revised legislation on a voluntary basis from next spring, but its implementation will be mandatory within two years.

As for sexual harassment, firms whose employees target someone in a different workplace are asked to cooperate with the victims’ firm during investigations into the matter.

The government will also consider drawing up guidelines to counter harassment by customers or clients, as well as the sexual harassment of job-seeking students.

The number of cases of bullying and abuse of power in workplaces reported to labor bureaus reached around 72,000 in fiscal 2017, hitting a record high for the sixth consecutive year.

“Although some behavior had to some extent been considered excessive but permissible as a form of instruction, the new legislation will likely help curb extreme abuses of power,” said Masaomi Kaneko, head of the Workplace Harassment Research Institute.

Meanwhile, Shino Naito, vice senior researcher at the Japan Institute for Labor Policy and Training, said it is “regrettable” that the legislation fails to impose punitive measures. Japan “lags behind the global standard, as the International Labor Organization is set to adopt a treaty to ban harassment in the near future,” she said.

As for power harassment, the revisions are basically in line with arguments by the business community that it is hard to draw a line between cases in which bosses “give instructions and guidance” and cases of harassment.

As harassment may have serious implications for victims, potentially driving them to suffer mental health issues or to engage in self-harm, Japan should introduce punitive measures as quickly as possible, Naito said.

Revisions to the laws, including the Equal Employment Opportunity Law, also aim to empower working women, obliging small and midsize companies with 101 to 300 workers to set numerical goals for the promotion of women in senior positions. Such a requirement has already been imposed on larger companies.