The enactment of legislation aimed at combating various forms of workplace harassment tackles the problem of power harassment for the first time — which thus far has essentially been left in the hands of employers. It is a step forward that the law defines what constitutes power harassment and requires businesses to take steps to prevent it. Although the legislation’s effectiveness is in question since it fails to provide for penalties against violators, employers need to realize the gravity of the problem and make steady efforts to eliminate it.

The legislation, which amends five different laws, defines power harassment as “excessive words and behavior by people who take advantage of their superior positions, harming the working environment.” It prohibits power harassment, sexual harassment and maternity harassment against women who are pregnant or have given birth, and bans employers from treating employees unfairly who have complained about alleged harassment by their bosses and colleagues — such as by firing them. While legislative steps have already been taken to require employers to deal with sexual harassment and maternity harassment, power harassment has now been added to the list of acts at workplaces against which they need to take preventive steps, such as by implementing a system to hear and act on victim complaints.

A 2017 survey by the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry on 10,000 workers at businesses and organizations indicated that 1 out of 3 people are subjected to power harassment — 32.5 percent of the respondents said they have fallen victim to such workplace harassment, while 36 percent of employers replied that they have heard such complaints from employees. In fiscal 2017 alone, the ministry received complaints from employees pertaining to 72,000 cases of such harassment and workplace bullying — a more than tenfold increase since 2002. It is now the greatest source of labor-related problems on which employees consult with the ministry, exceeding such issues as work conditions and dismissals.

Violence, bullying — including verbal abuse — and excessive workloads meted out by bosses damage the dignity of victims. Such harassment not only harms the workplace environment and employee morale but negatively affects productivity and human resources development. Many victims end up taking extended leaves, resigning, developing emotional problems or becoming suicidal. In the 2015 suicide of an overworked employee at ad agency Dentsu Inc. — a case that helped prompt the government to pursue a cap on overtime hours as part of its “work-style reform” drive — it turned out that the 24-year-old worker, who was clocking more than 100 hours of overtime a month before suffering depression, had also been verbally abused by her boss.

So far it has been left in the hands of individual employers to deal with power harassment. In that sense, it is a step forward that the new legislation mandates employers to take measures against the problem. However, no provision for punishment against violators was included in the legislation in deference to the opinion of business sectors that it is difficult to draw a clear line between power harassment and guidance that is necessary for work operations.

Critics charge that the lack of penalties raises doubts about how effective the measure will be in curbing workplace harassment. A legislative step taken in 2007 similarly required employers to take steps against sexual harassment. But compliance appears to be mixed given the lack of an outright ban that includes penalties for violators. A labor ministry survey shows that only 70 percent of companies polled said they have taken steps to stop sexual harassment. About 40 percent of the firms said they have set up a section that receives employee complaints, but only 10 percent have given relevant training to the people in charge of dealing with complaints. Along with the lack of punitive provisions that makes it difficult for the government to deal with firms that fail to comply, a shortage of experts who can supervise and guide the behavior of employers is cited behind the slow action to combat sexual harassment.

Labor organizations call for an outright ban on workplace harassment accompanied by provisions that carry strong penalties or can be used as a basis for damages suits. Noting that the International Labor Organization is expected to adopt a treaty banning violence or any form of harassment at workplaces at its upcoming general assembly, they urge that Japan not be left behind in the international trend for tightening measures against such harassment. Even before such steps are taken, it should be made clear to all that power harassment is a violation of human rights that inflicts grave damage on victims, and steady efforts must be made by all parties concerned to combat the problem.

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