TOKYO -- The Japanese government will consider a legal limit on monthly overtime, with penalties for rule breakers -- a step toward curbing excessive work hours that could force both labor and management to rethink their jobs.
Proposals for the cap range from 60 to 80 hours per month. A council on labor reform will begin discussing the issue Feb. 1.
After that, the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare would propose changes to the current law by the end of the year. Some in the government want the new rule to take effect as early as fiscal 2019. Between now and then, efforts would be made to bring the business community into the process.
The current Labor Standards Act stipulates an eight-hour day and a 40-hour week, but article 36 of the law permits overtime and work on weekends by written agreement between management and labor. And special clauses to these agreements allow employers to extend overtime indefinitely. A fifth of companies in Japan are said to have such arrangements, which have been blamed for overwork-related stress and even deaths.
The ministry's criteria for determining death by overwork, or karoshi in Japanese, include two to six consecutive months of monthly overtime in excess of 80 hours. Eighty-plus hours is also a trigger for onsite investigations of illegal overwork. Many within the government see 80 hours as an appropriate cap.
Others see 60 hours per month as a reasonable limit, as this is the threshold above which employers must pay bigger wage premiums under the current rule.
A monthly cap could hamper operations of companies in highly seasonal businesses, so the government will also consider annual and six-month limits. Employers would have to meet one of these limits. For an annual cap, a proposal of 750 hours by the Japanese Trade Union Confederation, also known as Rengo, will be considered among other recommendations.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's government has already proposed changes to the labor law that would create a "white collar exemption" to overtime rules for certain high-paying professional jobs, such as currency dealers, to shift the basis of pay from work hours to performance.