Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has declared that the ongoing 150-day regular Diet session will be dedicated to “work-style reform.” Deliberations on the package of work-style reform legislation will finally start. There are two key elements in the revision of the Labor Standards Law. One is the tightening of labor regulations — imposing a legal cap on overtime hours. The other are deregulatory steps — introduction of the “highly professional” work system and expanding the scope of the discretionary labor scheme. These two are put together to be discussed as a single piece of legislation.

One element of the legislation tightens restrictions on people’s work hours, while the other introduces new ways of work free from work hour regulations. Some criticize the legislation as confusing because it seeks to achieve seemingly contradictory objectives. Others charge that the legislation will end up allowing people to work too much — to the point of endangering their health — because it creates a work system not bound by the overtime limit being introduced. There are yet others who argue it is obsolete in the first place, in this age of information technology, to require people to work what hours and where.

Having sat as an expert member on the government’s panel on work-style reforms, I hope that the cap on overtime hours will be introduced. True, families of people who died from karōshi (death from overwork) say the upper limit is set too high to ensure that the kind of tragedies that hit their loved ones won’t be repeated. But when you think of the practicality of an overtime cap — and given a choice between a cap or no cap — I would say the limit should be introduced. If the legislation fails this time, who knows when it can be revived.

Death from overwork of company employees in Japan is so notorious worldwide that the term “karōshi” has made its way into the English lexicon. For too long, it has been possible for a Japanese company to get its employees to work limitless hours as long as it has been agreed on between the management and its union. It’s like driving on an expressway without a speed limit. There will be accidents, with possible fatalities. The proposed legislation introduces a speed limit for the first time since the labor law took effect 70 years ago — although it also provides for the ways of working that will not be bound by the limit.

The chances appear high that the legislation will be enacted in a package. The opposition camp will have a hard time shooting down the entire legislation. Instead of opposing everything, it would be more practical to think about how the matter should be regulated in concrete terms in the implementation of the legislation — and impose tight conditions in that process.

It is significant that an upper limit on overtime hours — which has so far not existed — is finally being introduced. Japan’s employers are strict about having employees come to work at, say, 9 a.m., but do not impose much control on when they finish their work. As represented by the kaizen efforts at Toyota Motor Corp., productivity in manufacturing has been scrutinized, but there was little awareness of per-hour productivity of white-collar workers.

But since the government declared that an upper limit on overtime hours will be introduced, the awareness of corporate management has changed. Employers are starting to take a hard look at “work hours.” Even industries where employees constantly put in long hours, including the mass media, construction and trucking, are beginning to act out of concern that they might be targeted by labor inspectors.

Negative aspects of the work-style reform have also come to light — in the form of what’s called the “cut-the-work-hour” harassment. When employers simply order their workers to cut overtime, the employees could end up working overtime without clocking the extra hours. Just telling employees to go home early would either turn the effort into a nominal campaign or result in adding more pressure on the workers.

Work-style reform is synonymous with management reform and management strategy. It’s not about ordering employees to raise productivity. Employers must be resolved to tackle the challenge — by eliminating unnecessary work, improving staff evaluation and compensation, making their operation more efficient (such as by investing in IT infrastructure) and involving their clients in the effort. At SCSK Corp., a pioneer in the IT industry in tackling the problem of employees’ long work hours, its president wrote letters to client companies to seek their understanding. Employees who saved manpower expenses by reducing overtime hours were rewarded accordingly through bonuses.

Discussions over the issue have become complicated with various factors, such as productivity and work-life balance. That is because many of the challenges left unaddressed for such a long time are now coming to the fore. One is the challenge of protecting the rights, health and safety of workers. Another is the challenge of gender equality, which is a must if women are to play a greater role in society. And the latest challenge is a new industrial revolution called the digital shift.

The European Union has a rule requiring workers to be given 11-hour intervals between shifts. In Germany, managers are fined for having their staff work more than 10 hours a day. Every country imposes an upper limit on people’s work hours to protect the workers’ health and work-life balance. Japan lags behind others in this respect.

Japan is making efforts to advance gender equality, such as introduction of a law promoting women’s roles in society. Still, Japan is rated 114th out of 144 countries in the World Economic Forum’s gender equality ranking. Improvement in women’s position and income has been taking place over a long time worldwide. Japan has not yet been able to ride the wave.

Before Japan fully tackled these two challenges, the male-centric ways of work that favored long working hours are fast becoming irrelevant — because of the digital shift. The problem that surfaced at Yamato Transport is a good example, The innovation called Amazon became a big success here, but at the major parcel delivery firm that supported the growth of online shopping, employees worked excessively long hours — often without overtime pay. An innovation will not properly work under old ways of doing things. Ways of work in all kinds of jobs are about to change rapidly. It will be impossible to overcome the challenge by dogged efforts that disregard human rights and efficiency.

A company that competes with the advertising giant Dentsu has led others in tackling work-style reform. The president of the firm said he sought to change its work culture because he was aware that amid the digital shift in the ad business, the old practices — in which workers were expected to spend long hours at work to answer the clients’ tough demands — would take a heavy toll on employees.

Work-style reform is an answer to dealing with this new digital shift while coping with the challenges left over from the past. The question is whether we can take action in time for the rapid changes that are about to take place around the world.

Toko Shirakawa is a journalist and author of books on women’s issues, including lifestyles, careers and gender equality. A visiting professor at Sagami Women’s University, she is also a member of the Cabinet Office panel on work-style reforms.

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