More than three and a half years have passed since a law to protect whistle-blowers went into force in April 2006. The law was enacted in response to the courage demonstrated by corporate whistle-blowers in bringing irregularities to light. Revelations in publicized cases have included allegations that a carmaker was hiding customer complaints about vehicle defects and that a food company had mislabeled imported beef as domestically produced beef.
Unfortunately, the law’s effectiveness is being undermined by its failure to sufficiently protect whistle-blowers.
Jurisdiction over the law was recently transferred from the Cabinet Office to the Consumer Affairs Agency. It is expected that the functions scattered among various ministries to accept information from whistle-blowers will be unified under the agency. In a related move, the Tokyo Bar Association is providing free counseling by telephone for whistle-blowers on the third Tuesday of every month from 10 a.m. to noon through the end of March 2010. (The telephone number is 03-3581-2236.)
From April 2006 to September 2009, Tokyo’s three bar associations gave advice in 108 whistle-blowing cases. One likely reason for the relatively low number of cases is that the current law does not sufficiently protect whistle-blowers.
The law prohibits companies from firing or demoting whistle-blowers, but employees must, in principle, make their first report of company irregularites to their employer, not a third party. Thus the law assumes that employers will treat their employees, and the information received, appropriately. Some whistle-blowers have said that their actions led to losing their jobs.
Under current provisions, whistle-blowers may not contact outside parties such as mass media unless there is a strong reason to believe that notifying their employers of irregularities won’t go anywhere and that the companies might even hide evidence.
The law should be revised so that whistle-blowers feel free to follow their conscience without having to worry about risks to their livelihood. It should also include penalties for employers who fire or demote whistle-blowers.
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