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Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2008

Work-life balance starts at home: Rengo chief

Staff writer

As part of efforts to stem the nation's depopulation, a guide to promoting a better work and family life balance among workers was recently adopted by a special government panel.

News photo
Tsuyoshi Takagi, head of the Japanese Trade Union Confederation (Rengo), is interviewed in Tokyo's Ochanomizu district last month. YOSHIAKI MIURA PHOTO

But Tsuyoshi Takagi, president of the Japanese Trade Union Confederation (Rengo), warned that for such a concept to take root, thorough discussions must be held at the household level as well as tween corporate management and workers.

The concept of striking a work-life balance has spread widely in the United States and Europe since the 1980s, according to the government-affiliated Japan Institute for Labor Policy and Training.

Many Western countries have introduced policies to promote family-friendly working conditions, including paid sabbaticals, paternity leave for fathers and flexible working hours.

The idea is finally beginning to catch on in Japan, a land notorious for the brutally long work hours of its corporate employees.

In a recent group interview with media organizations, Takagi agreed that efforts to balance work and family life overlap with various policy measures to curb the declining birthrate.

But in addition to such measures, the key to achieving a better balance of work and family life lies in each household, Takagi said.

"Balancing work and life involves issues like dividing household chores (between husband and wife)," he said. "In that sense, one major part involves a change in awareness on the part of men."

Rengo has included promoting the balance between work and family life in its objectives for the 2008 "shunto" spring wage talks with management, focusing on cuts in working hours and on higher overtime pay.

"We need to correct the distortions related to how (we) work and live as a way to actualize a work-life balance," the 2008 shunto guide states. "In order to do so, (we) must focus on the work hours, which are too long, and call for a cut in work hours and an increase in extra pay for overtime."

In mid-December, a special government panel headed by Chief Cabinet Secretary Nobutaka Machimura signed the Work-Life Balance Charter. The panel's members included academics and representatives of the business community, including Fujio Mitarai, chairman of the Japan Business Federation (Nippon Keidanren), and Takagi.

The charter stresses the importance of the balance between work and life amid Japan's reality, in which many corporate employees are overworked to the point of exhaustion and are unable to spend enough time with their children or care for ailing parents.

As concrete measures to correct the situation, the charter calls for halving the number of people working 60 or more hours a week — who are estimated to account for about 10 percent of the workforce — and increasing the ratio of women who continue to work after giving birth to their first child to 55 percent from the current 38 percent, both by 2017.

The annual white paper on labor economy released by the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry in August said Japan needs "to create an employment system in which (workers) can strive for a balance between work and life in order for our country and society to continue economic development amid depopulation."

However, health ministry data show that corporate employees worked an average of 150.9 hours a month in 2006 — a 0.5 percent increase from the previous year.

"Employers and employees must discuss how a work-life balance can be promoted and provide the necessary conditions," Takagi said. "Nippon Keidanren also signed (the Work-Life Balance Charter). I hope the management side also recognizes the need (for a work-life balance) and steadily moves in that direction."

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