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Politics

Japan shifts focus to white-collar jobs in overwork probes

Illegal overtime bigger problem in offices than at construction sites

Mitsubishi Electric's headquarters in Tokyo

TOKYO -- With the suicide of a Dentsu employee shedding new light on long work hours in Japan, labor authorities have begun to crack down on excessive overtime imposed on white-collar workers, now going after Mitsubishi Electric.

The Labor Ministry's Kanagawa Prefecture bureau sent papers on the Mitsubishi case to prosecutors Wednesday, accusing the company and one supervisor of labor law violations.

The case concerns a research section employee who joined the company in April 2013. The 31-year old, who was fired last June, reportedly worked 78 hours and nine minutes of overtime in a month in January-February 2014, according to the labor bureau. This well exceeds the 60-hour monthly overtime limit agreed to by the labor union and the employer.

"We are taking the matter seriously, and will make all-out efforts to ensure appropriate work hours," said a Mitsubishi Electric spokesperson.

The former employee's overtime sometimes exceeded 100 hours a month. The authorities determined in November that excessive overtime is the cause of his mental illness.

"I had never heard of a case involving an R&D employee referred to prosecutors," said a seasoned labor standard inspector.

Workers' compensation applications for mental illnesses are increasing. Of the record 1,515 cases filed in fiscal 2015, 362 were for clerical and administrative jobs and 325 for specialized and technical jobs.

"Overtime exceeding 100 hours a month is common in white-collar workplaces," said a labor ministry official.

Previously, labor bureaus had focused on cases involving blue-collar jobs in construction and factory work, since accidents in these settings could readily lead to injury and death. But such fatalities are decreasing.

Labor bureaus have been given more personnel -- which may be enabling greater attention to overwork in office settings.

Shinya Ouchi, a labor law professor at Kobe University, says the current rule with a leeway of overtime agreed to by labor unions and employers must be re-examined, and an absolute limit should be set.

At the same time, he acknowledged that strictly following the present rules could hamper creative work by people who like to set their own hours -- and as a result, corporate earnings could suffer.

"It is not that long hours are themselves evil, but we must eliminate pointless work and increase the focus on tasks at hand," Ouchi said. 

(Nikkei)

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