The Yomiuri ShimbunOne of the major issues in Japan, where a House of Representatives election campaign is under way, is to address long working hours. The following is a report on the current situation.
The huge oval frame is already taking shape.
With cranes standing tall, construction of the steel frame for the new National Stadium — the main venue for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics, is proceeding rapidly at the site in Shinjuku Ward, Tokyo.
“We’ve called the site ‘inside the wall,’” said a former employee of Taisei Corp., the first contractor for the construction project. The site is surrounded by high walls whose purposes include reducing noise.
“We have nothing to do with work style reforms, because they are an issue of the world beyond this wall. I didn’t know such terrible overwork was taking place within the national project for the Olympics,” he added.
In March, a newly hired male employee of a primary subcontractor who worked at the construction site went missing. He was 23 at the time.
The employee worked as an on-site supervisor in charge of ground improvement. Since he was not used to tasks such as checking construction progress and arranging the next day’s work, he would work until midnight — and sometimes all night.
The employee worked about 190 hours of overtime in the month leading up to him going missing.
In April, he was found dead, along with a note: “I am at my breaking point physically and mentally, so could only come up with this result.”
On Oct. 6, a Labor Standards Inspection Office deemed his suicide to have been induced by long working hours.
A notice ordering workers not to do overtime work after 8 p.m. was displayed at the site after the suicide, according to construction workers there. However, the schedule to complete the stadium in November 2019 went unchanged — prompting some to lament that “an excessive burden will just be put on someone else, despite overtime being limited.”
The government plans to include an upper limit on overtime that would subject violating firms to penalties in a bill related to work style reforms. If enacted, construction businesses will be subject to the law five years after its implementation.
However, amid a serious labor shortage in the industry, will the current situation really improve?
“Those placing [construction] orders have great responsibilities,” said Prof. Hitoshi Mihara of the Institute of Technologists, a specialist in construction manufacturing science with experience as an on-site supervisor.
“Overly short construction periods and excessively small budgets lead to overwork. Politicians and society as a whole should better understand this and address the issue seriously,” he added.
Industries taking action
The transport and service sectors are gradually moving toward reforms.
Yamato Transport Co. modified its parcel delivery time slots and abolished its designated delivery time slot of noon to 2 p.m. in the aim of securing a break for its drivers.
Yamato also raised delivery fees in October so it could increase the wages of its employees. Other delivery companies such as Sagawa Express Co. plan to raise their delivery fees.
Family restaurant chain operator Royal Host Co. ended 24-hour operations at all of its 221 outlets nationwide by January. Its average daily business hours were 15.5 hours in the first half of 2017, down 1.3 hours from a year earlier. But in the same period, its sales increased 1.3 percent year on year.
“The burden on employees was lessened, and the quality of service and meals improved,” said Shinichiro Koike, who heads the company’s strategy planning section. “These [factors] contributed to the results.”
Unequal pay under spotlight
Along with addressing the problem of long working hours, the government has positioned the principle of “equal pay for equal work” as another pillar of its work style reforms.
“I understand basic salaries differ between regular and non-regular workers, but I think pay for the same work should be equal,” said Junji Oka, a 53-year-old contract employee at a post office in Suita, Osaka Prefecture.
Oka filed a lawsuit with the Osaka District Court against Japan Post Co. — his employer — demanding the company rectify disparities between regular and non-regular workers.
In a similar case involving JP, the Tokyo District Court ruled in September that it was illegal for it to not provide such allowances as “year-end and New Year holiday allowances” to contract employees.
“If Japan Post changes, other companies will follow suit,” Oka said.
However, the latest dissolution of the lower house has halted discussions about the bill related to work style reforms.
Oka, who is critical of politics, said: “What draws attention in elections is who partners whom, and the discussion about work styles gets left behind. I hope a society is realized in which people regardless of employment status can work and live without damaging their health.”
Parties pledge measures
Many parties are pledging to rectify or regulate long working hours, and are showing positive attitudes toward realizing “equal pay for equal work.”
The government plans to introduce a system under which highly skilled professionals would be paid based on performance rather than working hours. The Japanese Communist Party, the Social Democratic Party and others are opposed to the plan.Speech