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Tuesday, Dec. 18, 2012

LIFELINES: LABOR PAINS

When is an hour at work not a work hour?


By HIFUMI OKUNUKI

It was 1988, in an ad for Regain energy drink. Actor Saburo Tokito, wearing a suit and carrying an attache case, asked a question that would go down in TV history: "Can I work 24 hours straight?"

Japan was reveling in the go-go years of the bubble economy, its people sacrificing their health, families and private lives in a mad devotion to work, work and more work. But beneath all the bright economic indicators lurked a dark underbelly of millions of hours of unpaid overtime and innumerable cases of karōshi, or death from overwork.

As 2012 winds down, economic and political stagnation drags on, while our society increasingly feels somehow claustrophobic. If we cannot have permanent economic growth, then shouldn't we at least do away with the 24/7 work ethic? Yet the Japanese disease of "all work and no play" unfortunately seems to be here to stay. With job security fading fast, things are worse than ever.

I'd like to close 2012 with a major labor law theme: work hours. When is an hour a work hour? It's not as straightforward as it might seem. To ensure that work hours are a pleasant and humane experience, we first need to define them.

The Labor Standards Law sidesteps a proper definition, and labor law scholars fall into two camps over how a work hour should be defined. One subscribes to what is known as kyakkan-setsu, roughly translating as "objective theory." This camp argues that work hours are the entire time during which the employee can objectively be considered to be under the authority of her or his employer.

The nibun-setsu (two-part theory) camp, on the other hand, splits work hours into "core" and "peripheral" work hours, with the status of the latter gray area between strictly defined work hours and break time to be determined through agreement between the employer and employed.

The gold standard in case law regarding work hours is the Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Nagasaki Shipyard case. The Supreme Court's Petty Bench on March 9, 2000, rejected outright the nibun-setsu approach and backed the kyakkan-setsu interpretation. Let's examine the case.

The plaintiffs built and repaired vessels for Mitsubishi Heavy. The shūgyō kisoku (work rules) stipulated work hours and break time, as well as rules regarding changing into work clothes before and after work.

Workers were expected to be on site at the start and end of each shift in proper work clothes and gear. The preparation had to be done in the changing room and failure to do so before the start of each shift could result in disciplinary action, including poor evaluation, pay cuts or suspension.

The plaintiffs sued the plant, claiming that the following periods, numbered 1 through 8, were working hours and therefore should be paid as overtime and at overtime rates.

1) Time in the morning to get from the shipyard gate to the changing room.

2) Time in the changing room to don work clothes and special equipment, then to move to the preshift calisthenics area.

3) Time spent taking out equipment and materials from the warehouse before and after work and hosing down the yard before the shift.

4) Time to get from the shipyard to the cafeteria and then remove some gear and clothing for lunch break.

5) Time to move from the cafeteria to the calisthenics area and then put gear and clothing back on after lunch.

6) Time to get from the work site to the changing room and remove clothing and gear after work.

7) Time spent washing or taking a shower and then changing into ordinary clothes.

8) Time to get from the changing room to the gate of the shipyard at the end of the shift.

Nagasaki District Court in 1989, the Fukuoka High Court in 1995 and the Supreme Court in 2000 all ruled that 2, 3 and 6 constituted work hours that must be paid, while the others did not, for the following reasons: Workers were not under company authority during time periods 1 and 8; workers were free to use their break time as they chose for periods 4 and 5; and period 7 involved actions that were not required of workers and did not interfere unduly with their commute home.

This case was the first to take up the definition of work hours and is thus extremely important. Much attention is paid to the wording in the verdict that "time to do activities that are unavoidable or ordered by the employer constitute work hours." This applies even if the order is tacit.

This case gives a sense of the courts' thinking on work hours. If more workers understood this jurisprudence, we would surely see more workplaces that are "healthy in body and mind."

With that, let me wish our readers a 2013 full of happiness and love.

Hifumi Okunuki teaches constitutional and labor law at Daito Bunka University and Jissen Women's University, among others. She also serves as paralegal for Zenkoku Ippan Tokyo General Union. On the third Tuesday of each month, Hifumi looks at a famous case in Japan's legal history to illustrate an important principle in labor law. Send your comments and story ideas to community@japantimes.co.jp


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