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Economy

Japan Inc. moving toward 4-day work week

Employers hope more flexible, shorter hours will diversify labor pool

KFC Holdings Japan has started four-day work weeks to strengthen retention of staff.

TOKYO -- Three days off per week are increasingly common in Japan's workplaces as employers seek to improve the work-life balance in line with the government's push for labor reform.

The shift from the traditional two days off per week is expected to enable more people with child and elderly care responsibilities to work, for instance, thereby alleviating the country's labor shortages.

In 2015, 8% of companies surveyed by the Labor Ministry allowed three or more days off per week. The percentage tripled over a decade.

KFC Holdings Japan is among the big-name companies that have adopted the initiative. In fiscal 2016, the fast-food chain operator rolled out reduced-hour staff who work just 20 hours weekly and take three days of their choice off each week. As of Wednesday, 20 people, including mothers returned from maternity leaves, were enrolled in this system. The company hopes this will help retain more workers.

Fast Retailing has introduced its own three-day-off program to the mainstay Uniqlo casual clothing chain. Yahoo Japan aims to do the same within a few years.

Similar shifts are happening in businesses based outside of Japan's metropolitan areas. Nursing care facility operator Uchiyama Holdings -- based in Fukuoka Prefecture -- will expand a three-day-off program to all of its 81 facilities by the end of fiscal 2016, offering it to 2,000 or so workers.

Uchiyama's 40-hour work week will remain unchanged. But staff will work four days of 10-hour shifts rather than five eight-hour shifts. The elder-care sector suffers severe labor shortages since the work is viewed as being difficult, so improving working conditions is particularly important. The company hopes the new shifts will attract more recruits and help it retain more existing staff.

The rice-polishing equipment maker Satake, based in Hiroshima, will offer three days off to 1,200 or so staffers who work for the head office and two affiliates, starting this summer. The company plans to step the change up to full scale in 2018, cutting hours by about 20% to 32 per week. Inefficiencies like unnecessary meetings and documents have to be eliminated to realize the shorter work hours. Satake also has offices in 12 countries outside Japan, and it hopes to encourage staff to use the newly freed-up time to hone their skills by going to a language school, for instance.

"Three days off per week were common mainly for large companies in the past, but in recent years, labor shortages have prompted more businesses outside big cities to adopt" the system, said Tetsu Washitani, an economics professor at Chuo University. If the change can be adopted while minimizing increases in daily work hours, that would increase efficiency as well, he added.

(Nikkei)

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