Recession Puts More Pressure on Japan's Workers

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In the last year or so, life appeared to be getting better for Japan's long-suffering workers. Sure, salarymen still toil long into the evening and are expected to guzzle with their bosses after hours. But employers, at the behest of government, have been taking steps to ease workloads, and recent cases suggest Japan's judiciary is more willing to side with employees who sue companies—a trend that could lead to a better balance between job demands and a worker's private life.

Yet, for all the signs of progress, anyone thinking life is getting easier for Japanese workers may need to think again. The economic downturn is weakening demand for Japanese exports, but it's unlikely to slacken many workloads. Thousands of temporary workers are being laid off and job insecurity is rising, which means few workers will want to appear as though they are not busy. In any case, after years of downsizing, there aren't as many people on the job, so a worker who declines to put in overtime knows his colleagues will have to pick up the slack. "Workers in their 30s have to do their own jobs and the work that in the past more junior workers would do," says Toshihiro Nagahama, an economist at in Tokyo. His widow agreed to compensation, but on the condition the company improve working conditions and inform her of changes each year. Nevertheless, last year the death of another Skylark worker—a contractor earning just $20,000 a year—was also attributed to overwork after he put in 80 hours a month of overtime. "In the cases of , it is obvious that the company killed the person," says Haruka Nakashima, who has set up a foundation to help overworked employees take on companies. Skylark declines to comment on the recent case or to provide details of its compensation agreement with Nakashima. Workers who claim more than a "standard level" of overtime for two months in a row must now see a corporate doctor, but a company spokesman declined to define what the "standard level" is.

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