TOKYO -- Shortening Japan's notoriously long workday and other efforts to improve labor productivity rank high on the agenda of many top executives in 2017.
"This is the year when we follow through on work reforms," Prime Minister Shinzo Abe declared in his speech at a New Year's event Thursday hosted by top business bodies.
"Unreasonable disparities in treatment between regular and non-regular workers won't be tolerated anymore," he told some 1,900 business leaders, including top executives at the nation's biggest companies. The prime minister added that he intends to speed up drafting of so-called equal-pay-for-equal-work legislation.
Support grows for new work culture
Comments from influential business leaders show that they did not need to be reminded of the urgency of improving work conditions.
The suicide of an overworked employee, a 24-year-old woman, at Dentsu became a major catalyst for the growing consensus on tackling excessive overtime. When Tadashi Ishii, president of the major ad agency, announced late last year that he would resign to take responsibility for the tragedy, it sent an unmistakable signal: corporate leaders have a duty to reform.
"It is business leaders' responsibility to properly manage working hours," said Fujio Mitarai, chairman and CEO of Canon.
Nidec President Shigenobu Nagamori, a famously hard-driving boss, said the maker of precision motors aims to cut overtime to zero by fiscal 2020.
Shrinking labor pool will force change
Worker productivity must rise if Japanese businesses are to reduce overtime while the nation's labor pool continues to shrink.
"There is still a lot of room to improve white-collar productivity," Toyota Motor President Akio Toyoda said. One of his key focuses this year is nurturing human resources. "People are all the more important in an age of many changes," he added.
Realizing the potential of child-rearing women and the elderly is also key to coping with a shrinking labor force.
"Long work hours are the biggest issue for working mothers," said Takeshi Kunibe, president of Sumitomo Mitsui Banking Corp. The Sumitomo Mitsui Financial Group lender is expanding telecommuting as a part of its commitment to helping employees balance work and raising a family.
Honda Motor's president, Takahiro Hachigo, promised a step-by-step approach to changing the way its employees work. Having recently introduced a telecommuting program, the automaker is looking to provide more opportunities for women and overseas employees to advance their careers.
Sadayuki Sakakibara, chairman of the Keidanren business federation, emphasized the importance of closing a loophole in the labor law that makes unlimited overtime possible. "The culture of long work hours must be changed," the head of the powerful corporate lobby said in a Thursday news conference.
On the issue of higher wages-- the Abe government is pushing for a fourth straight year of base pay gains in 2017-- there was less consensus. General contractor Taisei is open to a 2% increase, according to Chairman Takashi Yamauchi. But Hiroshi Ohnishi, president of retail group Isetan Mitsukoshi Holdings, said a broad-based raise would be "difficult" amid a tough earnings environment.