Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s struggle to combat incidences of Karoshi – a Japanese term for “death by overwork” – reached an key milestone on Friday, when Japan’s parliament approved a bill that limits overtime work to less than 100 hours a month per worker, and less than 720 hours per year, while setting penalties for companies that violate the new labor rules, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Before the law, there was no limit to the number of hours companies could ask their employees to work, as long as labor unions didn’t make a fuss.
Recently released government data revealed that Japan’s jobless rate touched 2.2% in May, the lowest level in 26 years. And as Japan’s working-age population dwindles, job openings have outpaced the number of workers available to fill them: As a reference, two months ago, there were 160 job offers available for every 100 workers seeking a job.
The law should also improve working conditions for “nonregular” workers – what we would call “temps” in the US – who lack the job security of their salaried peers.
“Work-style reforms are the best means to improve labor productivity,” Mr. Abe said in Parliament June 4. “We will correct long working hours and improve people’s balance between work and life.”
The new law also seeks to improve the lot of Japan’s growing pool of “nonregular” workers in temporary or part-time jobs who don’t have the job security of full-time regular employees. It says employers must pay equally for the same work, regardless of workers’ status. In a 2016 interview with The Wall Street Journal, Mr. Abe said he wanted to “eliminate the word ‘nonregular’ from the lexicon.”
The suicide of a 24-year-old female employee of Japanese advertising firm Dentsu helped inspire the law, as the government and the young woman’s family condemned Japan’s culture of long working hours.
In addition to the curbing suicides, Abe hopes that limiting workers’ hours will help reverse or at least arrest the country’s declining productivity (although it wasn’t exactly clear how). Declining productivity has been the scourge of the developed world, including the US, where the issue has mystified the Federal Reserve and economists, who fail to explain the lack of a rebound in US economic output.
That said, Japan isn’t the only Asian country where work-life balance is hopelessly out out of whack. In South Korea, a law that lowered the country’s maximum workweek to 52 hours, down from 68, also took effect this week. Altogether, workers in South Korea will be allowed to work the standard 40 hours, with an additional 12 hours of overtime thrown in.