JAPAN’S culture of overworking does not look set to abate anytime soon as the government on Wednesday set an “outrageous” and dangerously high 100-hour cap on monthly overtime.
In a bid to curb the national health crisis of karoshi, or death from overwork, the government has set targets critics claim are far too high and will do nothing to help tackle the problem.
The issue was highlighted last year when a chief executive at advertising firm Dentsu was forced to quit following the suicide of a young employee who was found to be clocking up more than 100 hours of overtime a month.
The culture of overworking is rife in Japan and the death of Matsuri Takahashi, along with a number of other overworked employees, drew national attention to the unhealthy and unsustainable nature of the problem.
The national outcry following Takahashi’s death prompted Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to head up a panel aimed at finding a solution to the problem, resulting in the current suggested maximum overtime of 100 hours a month.
According to AFP (via South China Morning Post), the conservative leader called it a “historic step for changing the way people work in Japan,” but critics still feel this falls woefully short of the needed measures.
The Labour Lawyers’ Association of Japan has slammed the proposed cap as “extremely inappropriate” and “impossible to support”.
“It’s tantamount to endorsing a limit that could cause overwork deaths,” association head Ichiro Natsume said.
Given the cap is the same amount of overtime worked by many of those who have lost their lives, it is hard for people to disagree. Those who have lost loved ones to the phenomenon are also disappointed by the decision.
“We cannot accept this – it’s outrageous,” said Emiko Teranishi, who heads a group of relatives of karoshi victims.
“I thought the government was finally going to tackle the issue … But this has turned out to be [a] step backward rather than a step forward.”
Teranishi’s husband took his own life in the mid-’90s after suffering acute depression as a result of his excessive hours at a struggling restaurant in Kyoto.
“My husband worked a total of 4,000 hours a year without weekends off. At most, he had two days off a month,” Teranishi said, adding he was pressured to work more by his recession-hit employer.
“He was depressed. He told me he couldn’t sleep or eat. I asked him to take a day off every morning, but he still went to work.”
At many firms in Japan, overtime is viewed as a sign of dedication even if it results in a drop in productivity. With current legislation, there is nothing to curb the amount of hours a company can ask full-time employees to work during busy periods.
The new rules would limit monthly overtime and levy penalties on firms that don’t comply.
The scheme, hammered out by Japan’s biggest business lobby Keidanren and the Japanese Trade Union Confederation, known as Rengo, officially says overtime should not exceed 45 hours a month.
But the proposed changes to the labour laws, expected to be submitted this year, would let employers make workers put in as many as 100 hours of overtime if the office is busy – a determination made by managers.
In a country in which 23 percent of Japanese companies have employees whose tendency to overwork puts them at serious risk of dying, critics claim the legislation does not do enough to tackle the issue.
Unionist and teacher at Sagami Women’s University, Hifumi Okunuki, warned the death toll was sure to mount unless more stringent action was taken.
“It seems we have drifted further away from that day in the future when the word ‘karoshi’ becomes a historical footnote,” she wrote in a Japan Times opinion column.
“How many more workers must die before our country wakes up?”