Some of the measures in the government’s work-style reform legislation enacted last year came into force this month, placing the first-ever legal cap on the hours of overtime work that each corporate employee can clock. Previously, the upper limit to a worker’s total overtime hours — beyond the eight hours a day and 40 hours a week under the Labor Standards Law — had been set in an agreement between the management and labor union of each company. While the measure marks a first step toward curbing the excessively long working hours of many corporate employees in this country, it only sets the baseline from which each firm needs to make further efforts to cut employees’ work hours — both for their health and for greater work efficiency.

The new rule in principle limits an employee’s overtime to 45 hours a month and 360 hours a year. To respond to the increased workload during busy seasons, a labor-management agreement can extend the limit up to 99 hours a month, up to an average of 80 hours monthly over a period of two to six months, and up to 720 hours a year. A company — or the official in charge of labor affairs — that violates the rules would be punishable by up to six months in prison or a fine of no more than ¥300,000.

For years, the nation has witnessed large numbers of workers dying of overwork-induced illnesses or committing suicide after suffering depression and other mental conditions caused by excessive workloads. The legal overtime cap is long overdue. But the measure has been criticized as being too weak to protect workers’ health — because the overtime cap of 80 to 100 hours a month is roughly the same level that is deemed the threshold for linking an employee’s death to overwork.

The step should serve as a catalyst for curbing the chronically long working hours of company workers, but each employer needs to follow it up by introducing tighter overtime caps of their own — as some major companies are starting to do. And any such rules would be meaningless unless they are strictly observed. In many past cases of workers who died of overwork, it was subsequently found that their employers had effectively manipulated their work records to make it look like their overtime did not exceed the limits set by the labor agreement. Such actions must be punished and other loopholes to the regulation closed.

Also deemed effective against overwork that imperils the health of employees is a system that requires employers to set aside minimum intervals between employees’ work shifts. The legislation urges companies to introduce such a system, but a Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry survey in 2018 shows that a mere 2 percent of them have done so. During the latest wage negotiation with its labor union, Fujitsu Ltd. agreed to introduce a system that will set aside 10-hour intervals between shifts to give workers sufficient rest and protect their health, a sign that curbing work hours is increasingly considered by both labor and management as a key step toward better working conditions.

The overtime cap has so far been imposed only on big companies — with application of the rules on smaller firms put on hold for another year to April 2020. Workers in some sectors, including construction, professional drivers and doctors, are exempt from the rule for five years, after which they will be subject to varying regulations that suit the needs of each sector. There is criticism that the planned overtime regulation for doctors, which will take effect in 2024, is too lax to protect the health of the medical professionals.

One reason behind the long work hours at many Japanese firms is believed to be the tight labor regulations in this country, which make it harder for employers than in other countries to dismiss full-time employees once they’re hired. Since it’s difficult to adjust the workforce in accordance with fluctuating demand, the companies try to cope with the busy period by getting the employees to work longer hours.

On the other hand, Japanese businesses are confronted with a tightening manpower shortage under the rapidly declining and graying population. Companies will face disadvantages in the competition to secure manpower if their employees have to work chronically long hours. Reducing the work hours of employees is crucial not just for the workers’ health but also for the companies’ bottom lines.

As businesses face greater competition in domestic and overseas markets, reform of Japan’s labor practices and rules is needed to make the best of the tightening labor supply under the nation’s demographic pressures. More measures should be explored to curb the long working hours of company workers and achieve a more efficient and productive use of the limited labor resources.

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