Ending life-threatening overwork

The Tokyo Summary Court trial dealing with the labor case involving Dentsu Inc., which stemmed from the suicide of a young overworked employee two years ago, is set to wrap up quickly with a ruling this Friday. In the one-day hearing held last month, the advertising agency accepted the prosecutors’ charge that it subjected four employees, including the suicide victim, to illegal amounts of overtime. President Toshihiro Yamamoto apologized for the death of the 24-year-old female employee and promised to develop a corporate culture that prioritizes protecting worker health. The Dentsu case must not just end in exposing the illegal practices at the firm alone. It must serve as a catalyst for greater efforts by businesses and the government to eradicate the excessively long work hours that imperil the health of many corporate employees.

Matsuri Takahashi, who joined Dentsu in spring 2015, jumped to her death from a company dorm on Christmas Day that year. A labor inspection office later recognized her suicide as work-related, having found that she was working 105 hours of overtime a month before she developed depression. A lawyer for Takahashi’s family reportedly said that management told her to underreport her overtime so it would look like the number of hours were within the limit agreed to by the company and its labor union.

In their opening statement Sept. 22, the prosecutors said that long overtime work, including late at night and on days off, was prevalent in Dentsu offices under its “client first” policy. In 2014, for example, some 1,400 Dentsu employees every month worked beyond the overtime limit set by the labor-management agreement.

Dentsu was twice told by labor inspection offices, in 2014 and 2015, to correct the illegal overtime work. But while the company responded by revising its agreement with the labor union to stop the illegal overtime work in form, management failed to explore a fundamental solution to the problem of overwork by either increasing manpower or reducing employees’ workload, the prosecutors said. Specific measures to reduce work hours were left in the hands of individual employees and their managers, which resulted in many employees working overtime without logging the hours or receiving additional pay — a situation that management was aware of but did not take action to stop, they said. The prosecution’s charge that the case before the court represented “a tip of the iceberg” of prevailing illegal labor practices at Dentsu must be taken seriously.

Government officials, company executives and labor unions should realize that some 30 years have passed since deaths from overwork of corporate employees became a serious social issue in this country. It was in 1988 that a telephone counseling service was introduced for people suffering life-threatening health damage due to overwork. Takahashi’s suicide was not the first by an overworked Dentsu employee. A 2000 ruling by the Supreme Court blamed overwork for a suicide in 1991 by a 24-year-old male Dentsu employee. The top court ruling that company management has a duty to protect the health of employees from overwork led to revising conditions for authorities to recognize work-related suicides. In 2014, a law to prevent death by overwork went into force, holding the government responsible for taking steps to prevent such incidents.

Still, the problem has not gone away. According to the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry, 498 cases of mental illness such as depression were recognized as work-related in fiscal 2016 — the most since officials began compiling comparable statistics in 1983. In the last fiscal year, 107 deaths and 84 suicides and attempted suicides, including Takahashi’ case, were recognized as having been caused by overwork.

The Dentsu case has added a sense of urgency to the campaign by the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to reduce the long work hours of the nation’s company employees. The administration has prepared legislation that would set a legal cap on overtime of 100 hours a month. However, that proposal came under fire since it could effectively condone the level of overtime hours deemed to pose a threat to the workers’ health. In addition, the overtime regulations will initially not be applied to such professions as medical doctors and truck drivers. The administration has also readied another proposal to lift work-hour regulations on certain highly skilled and highly paid professions, a proposal that labor unions charge could exacerbate their overwork. It needs to be constantly scrutinized whether sufficient steps are being taken to eradicate the widespread problem of overwork that imperials workers’ health.