The suicide of a stressed out, overworked 24-year-old Dentsu Inc. employee last year is not an isolated case. Labor authorities that raided the Tokyo headquarters and three regional offices of the nation’s top advertisement agency this week reportedly suspect that the firm has made a number of other employees work overtime beyond the limits agreed on with its labor union. The repeated problems at a leading company like Dentsu — which had in fact been recognized by the government as a firm taking proactive steps to reduce overtime work — show that addressing the overworking of Japanese corporate employees cannot be left to the voluntary efforts of businesses but require legal measures.

The case of Matsuri Takahashi, who jumped to her death from her condominium in December 2015 after suffering from depression, was recognized by the labor inspection office as a result of overwork just as the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is pushing to cut the chronically long working hours of the nation’s company workers as part of his “work-style reforms.” Karoshi, or death from overwork, has remained a serious problem since it was first highlighted as a social issue in the late 1980s. In fact, the suicide of another overworked Dentsu employee in 1991 led to a judicial standard recognizing employers’ responsibility for the overwork-induced suicides of their workers. It has also surfaced that the death of a young employee at the firm’s Tokyo head office in 2013 was given compensation under labor accident insurance program as a result of overwork-induced illness.

That Takahashi killed herself just a few months after Dentsu had been urged by labor offices to correct its practices of having its employees illegally work more overtime hours than allowed under the firm’s labor-management accord says a lot about the steps taken by the company to manage the health of its workers, as well as the effectiveness of government efforts to stop the overwork of corporate employees. Labor authorities have determined that Takahashi worked 105 hours of overtime over a month before she developed symptoms of depression, but records kept by the company showed that the overtime she reported that month was just barely within the maximum 70 hours under the labor-management agreement. Her family claims that she had been told by the company to underreport the overtime hours to keep them within the limit.

The labor authorities are believed to have gone ahead with the raids on the Dentsu offices after similar practices were found with other Dentsu employees in earlier probes that followed Takahashi’s suicide. The officials reportedly plan to scrutinize the work records and data on the employees’ arrival at and departure from their workplace to see if the company has habitually had its employees engage in illegal overtime work. A media report that at least 30 Dentsu employees were found to have underreported their monthly overtime by more than 100 hours points to the possibility of an organized practice at the company to cover up illegal overtime.

The Labor Standards Law in principle limits the work hours to eight hours a day and 40 hours a week. A company needs to strike an agreement with its labor union to have its employees work beyond the limits. The labor ministry sets a 45-hour limit on monthly overtime, but the management of a company can agree with its union for the employees to work longer hours under certain conditions.

Upon criticism that this system effectively paves the way for unlimited amount of overtime work, the Abe administration is said to be considering the introduction of a legal curb on the monthly work hours. But such a legislation will be meaningless if the work records are being manipulated. The “service overtime” practice of employers having their employees work overtime hours without clocking them remains a serious problem. Tightened labor regulations will only be effective if they are backed by measures to ensure compliance on the part of the employers — which raises the question of manpower at labor inspection offices across the country.

The extent of the suspected problems at Dentsu is not yet known. But the overwork of employees is definitely not a problem unique to the company. Nearly a quarter of some 1,700 firms surveyed in a recent karoshi report by the government said they have employees who have worked more than 80 hours of overtime a month — a criteria beyond which a worker’s death can be linked to overwork — including 12 percent of the total that replied that some of their employees clocked more than 100 hours of overtime in a single month. That the deaths and suicides of nearly 200 workers in fiscal 2015 were officially recognized as the result of overwork is said to represent only the tip of the iceberg. A Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry probe of roughly 8,500 businesses throughout Japan last year found that more than half of them engaged in illegal practices in having their employees work overtime, including rewriting their work records.

The probe into the practices at Dentsu should highlight what’s fallen short in the steps taken by the government and businesses for years to reduce the overwork of company workers, and serve as a guide to what effective measures are needed to stop the problem.

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