Full disclosure: I am the president of Tozen Union. Last October we joined the Japanese Trade Union Federation, known as Rengo.
It is therefore with a heavy heart that this month I lambaste Rengo’s recent decision to agree to a policy I believe will endanger the health and lives of workers in Japan. Criticizing our own tribe is never easy and leaves a sour taste, but if we cannot criticize ourselves, we have no right to criticize others.
Those who read my column know well that one of Japan’s most dire labor problems is the practice of working from early morning until late at night. Long hours can and do kill.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, long the champion of labor law deregulation, last year announced it was time to place a legally binding upper limit on overtime hours. Currently, the only upper limit is a nonbinding guideline of 45 hours per month.
I was suspicious of what Abe had in mind. Was he really going to act to protect workers from the long work hours that have made Japanese employers infamous and spawned words such as karōshi (death from overwork) and karōjisatsu (suicide from overwork)? Was he really going to switch from deregulation to regulation? What was he up to?
Abe maintains close ties with Sadayuki Sakakibara, the head of the Japan Business Federation (Keidanren) and Japan’s top business leader. Our prime minister boasts of being Japanese business’s top “salesman” in countries around the world. I had trouble believing Japan’s traveling salesman would do anything that might constrict the liberty of his business chums.
I touched upon the horror of excessive overtime in this column last October, including the suicide of a promising young woman working at the Dentsu ad agency: (bit.ly/lpdeathbyoverwork) Perhaps the government was showing at least a pretense of concern for workers in reaction to this scandal.
Despite a culture that glorifies overwork, even management has refrained from stooping so low as to attempt to justify the hours that led to the death of 24-year-old Matsuri Takahashi. She jumped from her third-floor dormitory when she could no longer endure the long hours of work duties.
One who did stoop: Professor Hideo Hasegawa of Musashino University, who, immediately after her death, posted, “Dying from working more than just 100 hours overtime is pathetic.” He went on in the same post to say that a true professional wouldn’t care how long their overtime is, and that if you can’t cut it after giving your best, you should change jobs. After a storm of protest and calls for his resignation, the professor deleted the post and apologized. I wonder how many overtime hours the good professor works.
The prime minister also weighed in: “A terrible tragedy occurred just over a year ago, as a woman in her first year at a company worked brutally long hours leading her to take her own life. … We would like to put a stop to this, determine what constitutes long work hours, and then commit to preventing such long work hours.”
This plays into Abe’s hatarakikata kaikaku (“working-pattern reform”) policy, of which josei no katsuyaku (women’s success) and “diversity” are major slogans. The leader may also be concerned with Japan’s growing reputation as a country where anachronistic corporations and industrial practices reign supreme.
Discussion calcified around the idea of setting a clear, legally binding upper limit on the number of overtime work hours an employer could subject its workers to. Ostensibly the government consulted both business and labor. For business, Abe consulted his buddy Sakakibara, and for labor, he spoke with Rikio Kozu, the head of the biggest labor union federation in Japan, Rengo.
Keep in mind Abe’s animosity toward labor unions: Two years ago, he was warned by the president of his own Liberal Democratic Party for heckling a minority party Diet member’s speech, calling out “Nikkyoso!” (the name of the Japan Teachers’ Union in Japanese).
Well, dear reader, how many hours do you think the government set as the maximum hours of overtime? Can you imagine? Article 32 of the Labor Standards Act prohibits any hours beyond 40 per week or eight per day (not counting breaks). The 40-hour week is something that workers throughout the world fought and died for. The question here is how many hours on top of that base workers can work.
The problem is Article 36 of the same law. This article permits employers to work their employees more than eight hours per day and 40 hours per week, on condition that the employer signs an Article 36 agreement (saburoku kyōtei) with an elected representative of a majority of the employees. Ostensibly the workforce must agree; in practice management often simply chooses a lackey who obediently signs it.
The Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare sent out a notice that 45 hours per month should be the maximum number of hours overtime, but nothing in the law prohibits going beyond that line. The law is like a car without brakes. Like such a car, the law has killed people.
Takahashi at Dentsu had worked up to 105 hours a month overtime. That was enough to convince her she could no longer go on living. The labor ministry has said that 80 hours per month overtime is the “karōshi line,” over which the worker’s life is in mortal danger. Eighty hours per month. Keep that number in mind as we continue.
The 40-hour week has long been considered the standard among advanced industrial nations, with overtime considered an exceptional and rare occurrence. Now we are seeing the consensus break down before our eyes, at least in Japan.
Again, what line do you think the government came up with? 10 hours of overtime per month? We should be so lucky. Maybe 20? Or perhaps the maximum guideline established by the ministry, 45 hours? That would be a shame.
Or perhaps the karōshi line of 80 hours, as corporations demand? That would be like asking for more workers to die of overwork, so surely the government didn’t go that far?
Although it may sound like a Trumpian defamatory lie, the government in fact decided to set the number of possible overtime work hours per month at 100. There’s no extra zero in that. The new law will blast through the karōshi line of 80 all the way to 100 hours of overtime a month — nearly the 105 hours that pushed Takahashi over the edge.
To be fair, this figure only applies when the company is “busy,” meaning your employer won’t be able to make you work that much unless she says the company is “busy.” Hmm.
Defenders of this new policy will surely counter that 45 hours will be the limit when the company is not “busy.” To them I say, look under the rock: That 45-hour overtime limit does not count hours worked on holidays or legally designated weekly rest days. This, reports have pointed out, means employees could still work up to the karōshi line — 80 hours’ overtime — for 12 straight months perfectly legally.
The most shocking part of all this is that, as of March 21, it was reported that Rengo chief Kozu reached an agreement with business leader Sakakibara on this grim new law. Abe touts the agreement as a “historic reform in the 70 years of the Labor Standards Act.”
In my mind, the negotiations between business and labor were pure farce. The 100-hour figure was a done deal before they even started. Not only did Rengo agree to it, but it seems clear Rengo had agreed to it before the bogus negotiations began.
I had heard that Rengo was an organization of workers treated well by big companies; that it was a goyō kumiai (a sweetheart union); that it represented the “aristocracy of the working class” (rōdō kizoku). But as negotiations proceeded, I clung until the end to the belief that even a labor union rotten to its core would surely reject a proposal to drive workers to their deaths.
My naivete was shattered like Takahashi’s young life. One can only imagine what she must make of this policy from her perch on high.
Many big businesses belonging to Keidanren already work their employees nearly 100 extra hours per month, according to a Feb. 4 article in the Shimbun Akahata. Let’s be blunt: In other words, these companies are already practically working their employees to death.
Conclusion: This law marks an utter defeat for unions. Business prevailed by justifying the current load of long work hours. The government, which backs management, also won, as Abe can now claim he took the first step in addressing the crisis of long work hours. Before there was no maximum work-hour limit, now there is … progress.
I fear our opponents are smarter than we are. Likewise, I have no choice but to admit that Rengo’s treachery is deep indeed. As a union member, as the president of Tozen Union, the decision by our federation to go along with the 100-hour cap brings me such chagrin and sadness that I’m at a loss about what to do.
It seems we have drifted further away from that day in the future when the word “karōshi” becomes a historical footnote. How many more workers must die before our country wakes up?
Hifumi Okunuki teaches at Sagami Women’s University and serves as executive president of Tozen Union. She can be reached at email@example.com. Labor Pains appears in print on the fourth Monday Community Page of the month.