Reduce long working hours to maintain economic vitality: The Japan News

Morning commuters wait to cross a road in Kawasaki, Kanagawa Prefecture, Japan, on Sept 29, 2016.
Morning commuters wait to cross a road in Kawasaki, Kanagawa Prefecture, Japan, on Sept 29, 2016.PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

In its editorial on Sept 29, the paper calls for effective reforms to address business needs and improve the plight of the country's work force.

To maintain economic vitality in society amid a declining population, it is essential to improve the environment so women and elderly people can better exhibit their ability and more actively participate in society.

The government's panel for work style reforms held its first meeting on Tuesday. The panel will map out an action plan within this fiscal year. At the meeting, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe emphatically said: "We'll tackle this issue with a strong will to realise (work reforms) no matter what."

We hope the panel will work out effective measures.

The biggest challenge is to address long working hours. Working hours of regular employees in Japan remain high, at around 2,000 hours a year. The ratio of workers with long working hours is also conspicuously high when compared with Europe and the United States.

Current labour practices, under which overtime has become normal, have prevented women - whose time is limited because of child-rearing and nursing care of elderly people - from actively participating in society. This has made it difficult for them to balance their work and family life, which has also become a major factor in the declining birthrate.

The focal issue of the reforms is a review of so-called Article 36 agreements. The Labour Standards Law stipulates that an employer shall not require employees to work more than eight hours a day and 40 hours a week.

But when an employer has concluded a labour-management agreement under the provisions of Article 36 of the law, the employer may require workers to work, in effect, unlimited overtime.

The majority of companies in Japan have entered Article 36 agreements. Among large companies, as many as 94 per cent of them have such agreements. But also conspicuous are those labour-management agreements that enable an employer to require workers to work overtime "exceeding 80 hours a month," the line considered to lead to death from overwork.

Exceptions must be limited

The government plans to set an upper limit on overtime. We believe such a measure is necessary to curb long working hours. The government said it will also study the possible introduction of penal provisions.

Business circles oppose any across-the-board restrictions that disregard specific characteristics of businesses. The need to consider the actual state of business operations is understandable, but a thoughtless expansion of exceptions should be avoided.

The realisation of equal pay for equal work is another important issue. Non-regular workers have increased to account for nearly 40 per cent of the total work force. But their wage levels remain as little as 60 per cent of those of regular workers. Improvements in employment conditions for non-regular workers must be accelerated.

Within this year, the government will map out guidelines that show what kinds of discrepancies can be considered unreasonable. It will also go as far as to revise related laws, including the Labour Contract Law.

It is important for these efforts to lead to raising the pay levels of non-regular workers, while taking into account Japan's employment practices such as the seniority-based wage system.

It is also necessary to focus on changing the working status of non-regular workers to regular employment to stabilise their employment.

In moving ahead with work style reforms, it is vital to enhance the productivity of every worker.

It is doubtful that any work style reforms, should they harm companies' earning power, can be realised.

Non-regular workers must be helped to develop their competence by improving vocational training programs for them or expanding opportunities for them to pursue continuing education at colleges.

The bill to revise the Labour Standards Law, carried over from the previous session and now under discussion in the Diet, has, as its central pillars, such proposals as introducing an employment pattern under which wages will be decided based on work results rather than by number of hours worked.

The bill should be passed into law promptly as it contains elements that would contribute to improving productivity.