Japan warns university, semiconductor firm for overworking staff as reform laws hit snag

Yukimi Takahashi, the mother of Matsuri Takahashi, former employee of Japanese advertising giant Dentsu who committed suicide in 2015 at the age of 24, at a news conference in Tokyo, Japan, on Oct 6, 2017.
Yukimi Takahashi, the mother of Matsuri Takahashi, former employee of Japanese advertising giant Dentsu who committed suicide in 2015 at the age of 24, at a news conference in Tokyo, Japan, on Oct 6, 2017. PHOTO: REUTERS

TOKYO - Japanese labour authorities have issued warnings to a semiconductor company and a university for overworking their employees, the move coming in the country where the term "karoshi" - or death by overwork - was coined.

Several high-profile karoshi deaths in recent years spurred a bout of soul searching in Japan and consequently a promise to prevent a repeat of such cases. Those who died included a young executive working for advertising giant Dentsu, an NHK political reporter and a construction supervisor at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Stadium.

However, the move also comes as the national government has failed to push through much-awaited labour reform laws, as these were built on dodgy data. Opposition lawmakers assailed Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's government for being reckless, pointing out that the proposed laws may well backfire and lead to employees working even longer hours.

Mr Abe apologised to Parliament last month, and the proposed legislation is now back on the drawing board. Reforms are slated to kick in only in April 2020 - a delay by a year.

On Tuesday (April 3), local media reported that the death of an unnamed 38-year-old factory worker at a subsidiary of chipmaker Renesas Electronics in January last year has been recognised as being caused by overwork.

 
 

The father of three had, in the four months before he died, clocked about 80 hours of overtime a month - the figure deemed to be the baseline for excessive overwork - and had also been facing acute daily mental stress due to difficult-to-hit quotas. He died of a heart attack.

Also on Tuesday, media reports said Osaka-based Kansai University had been hit with two labour standards advisories for making teachers at its affiliated elementary, junior high and high schools work illegal overtime.

Some of the teachers were working more than 2,000 hours of overtime a year, or on average about 42 hours of overtime a week. Assuming they did not work on weekends, it would mean they were clocking 16-hour days.

A labour study this week also showed that more than 40 per cent of ryokan, or traditional Japanese inns, in popular hot-spring towns such as Hakone, two hours south-west of Tokyo, have flouted labour laws.

Of the 261 inns that responded to the study, some 111 were found to have violated labour laws, including paying salaries under the minimum wage and overworking employees.

Under proposed labour reform laws, the Japanese government wanted to move towards a so-called "discretionary labour system" whereby employees are contracted to work a fixed number of overtime hours and are paid on the basis that they work those hours.

 
 

This means that any extra overtime work is unpaid, but any less will benefit the worker.

However, opponents, including several labour unions, argued that Japan's overwork culture is so deeply entrenched that the laws would serve only to worsen the situation of underreporting the number of hours worked.

In February, Mr Abe tapped labour ministry data to purportedly show that employees under the "discretionary labour system" were working fewer hours than their peers who were not under this system. Yet the data set was riddled with errors - including one instance where 45 hours of overtime were recorded in a single day.

Last month, Mr Abe retracted both the data and the proposed law, days after a labour office found that an employee at Nomura Real Estate Development had been overworked under the "discretionary labour system" when he committed suicide in September 2016.

The man, who was in his 50s, had clocked more than 180 hours of overtime in November 2015. He took a leave of absence in the spring of 2016, but killed himself after returning to work in autumn that year.