Photographer: Akio Kon/Bloomberg

Japan's Bid to Stop 'Death by Overwork' Seen Falling Short

  • Labor advocates say planned overtime limits not strict enough
  • Work issues contributed to more than 2,000 suicides in 2015

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe promised to change the way Japan works, including cutting the notoriously long hours that can lead to illness and death. His biggest effort so far is getting a poor grade.

A plan completed by the government last month, and expected to become law, doesn’t go far enough in establishing limits to protect workers from karoshi, or death by overwork, according to labor advocates and economists.

In what Abe called an "historic step," a government panel he led has determined that an employee’s overtime should be kept under 100 hours in any single month, and average no more than 80 hours a month over any two- to six-month period, with an annual cap of 720 hours.

Noriko Nakahara, an activist whose physician husband committed suicide and whose death was ruled karoshi, said the 100-hour limit is too high and could legitimize a culture of excessive work that hurts the mental and physical health of employees.

‘People Are Dying’

“It’s totally unacceptable. People are dying," said Nakahara, a member of the National Association of Families Concerned About Karoshi. “In Japan’s corporate culture, hard workers who have a strong sense of responsibility are left to bear the burden. Overwork problems can’t be solved at the individual level.”

Japan’s unforgiving work culture returned to the spotlight late last year after the suicide of a 24-year-old advertising employee the previous year was ruled karoshi. Work issues were a contributing factor in more than 2,000 suicides in 2015, according to a labor ministry white paper. Currently, overtime limits can effectively be waived by mutual consent between employer and worker.

Economists say labor reform is one of the most important issues facing Japan, a key to unlocking more of the economy’s potential. Grueling hours also make it difficult for people to lead balanced lives, including child-rearing and looking after elderly parents, while limiting the nation’s productivity.

The government has taken steps to promote a healthier work culture, including creating a "Premium Friday" campaign to encourage companies to let employees leave early on the last Friday of every month.

But Keidanren, Japan’s biggest business lobby, opposed efforts to set stricter limits on overtime hours, arguing that excessive limits could weaken international competitiveness.

The resulting plan calls for some limits that are roughly the same as some of the labor ministry’s current thresholds for karoshi. Death from cardiovascular illness, for example, could be the result of karoshi if the employee worked 100 hours of overtime the prior month, or 80 hours of overtime in any two- to six-month period, according to the ministry.

‘Not Enough’

The new 100-hour rule would do nothing to protect workers but might worsen the situation by leading courts to adopt looser standards for what constitutes karoshi, said Keiichi Ito, director of employment and labor law at the National Confederation of Trade Unions, who noted that 80 hours a month was a level judges appeared to care about.

Bills to legislate the changes are expected to be submitted to parliament, where the governing coalition has a solid majority, during the current fiscal year ending next March. Companies that break the rules would face a penalty, but the existing plan doesn’t specify what it would be.

The government’s work-reform plan also calls for better conditions for the nation’s legion of non-permanent workers. It includes guidelines for "equal pay for equal work" and urges companies to provide non-regular workers with benefits ranging from a commuting allowance to bereavement leave.

“The government’s work-style reform, which focuses on reducing overtime and improving the status of non-regular workers, is important, but it isn’t punchy enough,” said Hiroaki Muto, chief economist at Tokai Tokyo Research Center. “There is still room for further reforms in the labor market in order to boost Japan’s potential growth rate.”

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