Reducing overwork-related deaths

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.

  • Paul Johnny Lynn

    Quite apart from the fact that companies forcing employees to work hours better suited to robots is illegal, the benefits provided to the individuals, society in general, and the economy, by people having sufficient rest would be amazing. Unfortunately I doubt that either government or business care.

    • I worked 6 day weeks and have about 10 discretionary days off per year, leading to chronic fatigue with ultimately self employment as the only “cure”.

  • zer0_0zor0

    Aside from this “law”, there seems to be no mention of the “other law” increasing the scope of some forms of discretionary overtime for jobs having a “裁量” based performance criteria.

    Abe’s administration is a duplicitous and a front for an oligarchy.

  • As always, the GOVT are a bunch of hypocritical bar stewards. I have two friends in the MLIT who typically have to work until 5AM at least three times a week in order to perform all of their duties to a satisfactory. This work comes at severe detriment to their own health and their relationships with their respective families. The very fact that the government breaks its own laws is not just duplicitous but downright scary and begs the question, if they can ignore their own laws, can and do they ignore the constitution, too? Oh wait.. What’s that about the government looking to reinstate the SDF as a fully fledged army in all but name? ‘Nuff said.

    • zer0_0zor0

      My wife works in architectural design. The have a special law governing that industry because it had the highest rate of “death by overworking”. They did promulgate a law to deal with the problem some time ago.

      The problem is, the law is not enforced, and there appears to be a weakness in the mechanism.

      Granted, my wife refused to complain even after I sent her to the Labor Board, which confirmed my observations and the fact that she was owed several millions of yen in overtime pay.

      But that is simply representative of the societal basis upon which the frauds in the LDP can promulgate new laws that are merely window dressing and never are going to be enforced.

      • Exactly. These laws are there in name only and act merely as part of an MP’s portfolio. They are rarely (if ever) actually put into practice.