In its latest session the Diet enacted a law that requires the central government to take measures to prevent deaths resulting from overwork, including suicides. These problems have long been a serious issue in Japanese society, and the legislation won unanimous support of all the parties in both chambers. But the law fails to set down concrete rules to prevent overwork and does not provide punishment for businesses that subject their workers to extremely long work hours.

As a first step, the government should make the steps it has to take under the new law as effective as possible. They include conducting studies into the realities of overwork-induced deaths and beefing up counseling services for workers subjected to overwork and their families, as well as increasing support for nongovernmental organizations dealing with various problems resulting from overwork.

According to the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry, a record 1,409 people applied for workers’ accidents compensation in fiscal 2013 for mental illnesses such as depression suffered as a result of overwork — 152 more than in the previous yea — and 436 of them were awarded compensation, the second-largest number since the ministry started taking such a survey in 1983. Of those awarded compensation, 63 had either committed or attempted suicide. Factors that triggered the mental illnesses included power harassment, sexual harassment and bullying at workplaces.

In addition, 784 workers applied for compensation in fiscal 2013 for having suffered cardiovascular or brain diseases including cerebral hemorrhage due to overwork, 58 fewer than in the previous year, and 133 of them were awarded compensation, topping 100 for 12 consecutive years.

It is important for the government, businesses and labor unions to realize that these figures represent only a tiny fraction of the real situation. Many other cases caused by overwork do not come to the surface because workers and their families seeking damages are required to present evidence and they are awarded compensation only if they meet certain conditions. The government should conduct a thorough study to get a detailed picture of what’s taking place at workplaces, by going beyond cases that were officially recognized as work-related accidents.

There are large numbers of workers in their 40s or younger who kill themselves due to stress from overwork while deaths from overwork happen more often among workers in their 40s and older. The government needs to find out why and devise measures to improve the situation.

The Labor Standards Law sets the upper limit of regular working hours at eight hours a day and 40 hours a week. But this regulation exists almost in name only because some companies and their labor unions can sign agreements that allow much overtime — sometimes even more than 80 hours a month. It is said that if people work under such conditions for an extended period, their chances of death form overwork greatly increases. The government needs to close this overtime loopholes in labor regulations.

Just as the law aimed at preventing death from overwork has been enacted by the Diet, the Abe administration is striving to introduce a system under which wages would be paid on the basis of employees’ work performance instead of the amount of time spent on the job for certain categories of workers by doing away with the work-hour regulations on them. While members of the Abe administration say the system will apply only to a small number of highly paid workers, some business leaders are calling for introducing the system into a broad segment of the Japanese workforce.

Such a policy would contradict the spirit of the new, anti-overwork law. The government should give priority to reducing the excessively long working hours of so many of the nation’s corporate employees.

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