The Japanese government is pushing through new reforms to tackle several issues in Japan’s work culture. The reform bill consists of three parts: a legal cap on overtime work, equal treatment for regular and non-regular workers, and exemptions for skilled professional workers with high wages from working-hour regulations. Despite a promise of “flexible work styles”, there is little support from citizens and businesses. Nearly 70% of respondents in a recent survey by Kyodo News see the reform bill as unnecessary. Despite this lack of support, the government is moving forward for several reasons, including the recent deaths of several overworked employees, low productivity, and high inflation.
DEATH FROM OVERWORK
There have been several high-profile cases of employees dying from excessive work in recent years. In 2013, a 31-year-old journalist at NHK, Japan’s public broadcaster, died from heart failure after 159 hours of overtime and just two days off in the month before her death. In 2015, a young woman at an advertising firm committed suicide after working hundreds of hours of overtime a month for some time. Her employer was fined about US$4,500 for labor law violations.
PRODUCTIVITY AND INFLATION
While workers in Japan work more total hours per year than in any other country, Japan’s per-capita GDP is relatively low, only 20th place out of the 35 members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Experts believe that the government wants companies to use this opportunity to raise productivity to deal with labor shortages. Japan’s working age population continues to shrink and is expected to fall to 45.2 million by 2065 from a peak of 87.2 million in 1995. In addition to higher productivity, a wider range of work styles may increase the participation of women and seniors in the economy. Nevertheless, a higher birth rate or advanced technology will be required to stem the tide of labor shortages. In addition, the government hopes that giving workers more free time will encourage them to spend more money, which may combat inflation.
Some companies have taken proactive steps to improve the work-life balance of their employees. JFE Holdings will let employees select at least one day per week to leave on time at 5:30 PM. Mitsubishi Chemical will halve its internal meetings in length and frequency from April, with no meetings scheduled for early mornings or evenings, except when dictated by time zone differences. Work email on weekends will be banned as well. The government’s “Premium Friday” initiative encourages employees to leave work at 3 PM on the last Friday of the month. However, a survey of 155 big companies showed that 45% have no immediate plans to implement “Premium Fridays”.
CAN JAPAN CHANGE ITS WORK CULTURE?
Even if the reform bill is passed, there is still the question of whether Japanese companies and employees will conform to the changes. Despite previous efforts by the government, most workers currently take only half of their allotted holidays. However, there already appear to be some positive effects. Travel agency JTB estimates that a record number of people traveled over Golden Week, a weeklong holiday from late April to early May, and 11% of respondents to their survey were more likely to take time off during this year’s holiday than last year’s.
Also published on Medium.