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Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Preventing suicide and axing overtime pay is a risky mix

Staff writer

More than 30,000 people kill themselves each year in Japan, bestowing the country with the shameful honor of the highest suicide rate in the developed world. To deal with this reality, a group of lawmakers from across the political spectrum pushed an antisuicide bill through the Diet last month to force corporations, governments and hospitals to take measures to curb these tragedies.

But the government, which is obligated to try to save its citizens' lives, is at the same time pushing to kill off overtime pay and the limit of a 40-hour week for many of the nation's office workers.

It would be an understatement to say that the initiatives appear to be in direct conflict with one another.

Of the roughly 10,000 suicide victims who left wills last year, almost 4,000 cited economic pressures or other job-related strife as the reason for ending their lives.

The Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry's draft proposal to scrap overtime is vague on who among the nation's vast pool of salarymen and women would be targeted, paradoxically saying only that the changes are intended to help "workers wishing to further realize their goals and exercise their potential further through value-added work."

The nation's top business lobby, Nippon Keidanren (Japan Business Federation), however, puts it more bluntly, saying office workers with an average annual salary of 4 million yen or more should be targeted.

Keidanren insists that changes to labor practices that would eliminate overtime, modeled after the "white-collar exemption rule" in the U.S., are needed in order for Japan to "maintain international competitiveness."

Keidanren says workers in Japan should be rewarded for ideas, not hours. Hiroyuki Matsui, director of the organization's Labor Policy Bureau II, says that in white-collar jobs, "working hours and wages should be separated."

"We can't compete with China and South Korea by just working long hours," he said. "For the Japanese economy, which has caught up with that of Europe, to keep its competitive edge (over the rest of Asia), we can't maintain the current labor management system."

Matsui disputed the link between elimination of working-hour caps and suicides, or deterioration in workers' mental health. "If you have an annoying boss, you can get whacked out even if you work less than 40 hours a week," he said.

Matsui acknowledged, however, that Japanese workers in general will have to face more pressure in the future. "Compared to 20 or 30 years ago, speedy work is a mandate for workers in general, regardless of changes to labor laws," he said. "For Japan to stay competitive, each worker is bound to face more pressure on their work, either in its quality or speed."

Mizuho Fukushima, head of the opposition Social Democratic Party, who campaigned for the antisuicide law, is not buying the business community's argument. She says the government's move contradicts the nation's antisuicide initiatives, since it means removing restrictions on overwork, thus putting more pressure on workers to perform at the expense of their private time.

"I have talked to bereaved families of people who died as a result of overwork," she said. "There are lots of cases involving people who overwork, get clinically depressed and then kill themselves. Especially young workers are vulnerable. . . . I think this new employment rule would push workers to work beyond their capacity and thus lead to more cases of depression and karoshi (death from overwork)."

When contacted by The Japan Times, officials at the health and labor ministry bureau nominated as being in charge of the antisuicide law refused to comment on the no-overtime draft's relationship with overwork, saying they are responsible for caring for patients with depression, not people "who are not depressed yet."

Questioned about the impact of scrapping overtime on suicides, an official at a department within the ministry's Labor Standards Bureau responsible for the no-overtime draft said the draft requires employers to take "measures to ensure workers' health" -- such as regular health checkups and meetings with company doctors, if requested by workers themselves -- as a condition for introducing the new practice.

At the Industrial Safety and Health Department, the section within the ministry directly responsible for workers' health and safety, an official responded to the question by saying he and his colleagues were not directly involved in drafting the no-overtime rule.

He said that a third change in legislation, revisions to the Industrial Safety and Health Law, which took effect in April, are meant to protect workers from mental distress. The law mandates that employers set up counseling sessions with doctors for workers who put in 100 hours or more of overtime per month, and take action to improve their health based on the doctors' recommendations.

But Tetsuo Kamota, a lawyer specializing in labor issues, pointed out that many overworked employees would shy away from asking for appointments with doctors, fearing that it might invite negative reactions from their coworkers. "I wonder how accommodating the workplace environment is (to workers' mental needs)," he said.

Kamota said that, despite opposition from labor rights supporters like himself, Japan recently abandoned its policy to seek shorter hours for workers, which it promised internationally in 1988 in response to criticism that Japanese work too hard. But Kamota maintains that average annual working hours -- which stood at 1,834 hours in fiscal 2004, down some 300 hours compared to levels in the 1980s -- had gone down only because more part-time workers who work only a few hours a day have joined the workforce. Many male seishain (fulltime contract) employees still work for 2,300-2,400 hours a year, if unpaid overtime (both legal and illegal) is included.

Takeko Shibuya, an accredited counselor who sees workers at several corporations, said that, in light of the Industrial Health and Safety Law, it is unlikely that Japan will go back to the 1980s-style, work-until-you-die corporate mentality. But if the no-overtime system is introduced, each worker will need to learn how to protect themselves from the pressure to overwork, by keeping records on where and when they work, either at home or in the office, she said.

"If you are at home thinking about work, or even when you are dreaming about work, you should count that as working time," she said. "In Japan, individual workers (as opposed to unions) are not used to negotiating with management. . . . Women who quit work due to parenting then return to work as pato (part-timers) at a meager hourly rate of 800 yen or 900 yen still work extremely hard. They don't know how to cut corners. All workers should learn to provide labor that matches the level of their wages."

Whether the no-overtime proposal will make it to a vote in the Diet, and when, remains unclear. The government-commissioned panel, a subcommittee of the health and labor ministry's Labor Policy Council, met June 27 to discuss the proposal. The ministry wanted to have the subcommittee agree to its plan by the end of July, with legislation eyed next year, a ministry official said. But the panel, comprising both labor union leaders and management representatives, disagreed so strongly over the draft that the meeting ended in uproar, with no future date set for another meeting.

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Getting help

Tokyo English Life Line

News photo

TELL provides free, anonymous phone counseling at (03) 5774-0992 daily from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. It also provides face-to-face counseling. Call (03) 3498-0231 (English) or (03) 3498-0232 (Japanese) for appointments in person.

Inochi no Denwa

A nonprofit organization that provides free, anonymous phone counseling 24 hours a day in Japanese. Call (03) 3263-6165 or find a chapter near you at www.find-j.jp

Karoshi Hotline

A lawyers' group takes inquiries on complaints related to overwork at (03) 3813-6999 on weekdays from 10 a.m. to noon and from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Its bilingual Web site can be viewed at: karoshi.jp/english/index.html


The Japan chapter of the Canada-based Mood Disorders Association, it provides workshops in Japanese only for people suffering from depression and their families. Visit: www.mdajapan.net/

Life Link

A nonprofit group who played an instrumental role in passing the anti-suicide bill. The group's Web site (www.lifelink.or.jp/hp/top.html) includes many links to governmental and nonprofit groups offering help to people with labor, financial and mental problems.

International Association for Suicide Prevention

An international network for national and local suicide prevention organizations, researchers, volunteers, clinicians and professionals, it provides support and collaborates in suicide prevention around the world. Visit: www.med.uio.no/iasp/

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