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.
One Seoul resident interviewed by the Straits Times said she was “delighted” by the news. A small business owner, she said she left her large office to start her own company because the owners chose to keep the office perpetually understaffed, guaranteeing that workers would need to stay late to finish their work.
Under the law, which slashed the maximum weekly work hours to 52 from 68, workers in South Korea will be allowed to work 40 hours and an additional 12 hours of overtime.
Those who make their employees work more than 52 hours weekly now face up to two years in prison or a fine of up to 20 million won (S$24,484).
“I’m delighted by the news,” said Shin Na-eun, 29, a Seoul resident who runs her own business after quitting her job at a large-size firm two years ago.
“There were many reasons why I quit my job, which was seen as stable by many. One of the reasons was definitely the heavy workload.”
Shin said in her experience, no one really forced her to stay late in the office. Rather, it was her workload that made it impossible for her to leave work on time. She said the office was understaffed, and that she had to bring her work home on many occasions.
“I’m not naive enough to believe that this law will change everything overnight, but I feel like we are certainly going in the right direction,” she said.
Before the new law, studies showed that the average South Korean worked 40 hours a week, combined with an additional 16 hours of overtime. However, not all South Korean workers are so enthusiastic. Indeed, many fear that companies will continue to pressure workers to put in long hours at the office – but because of the law, workers won’t receive any compensation for this overtime since reporting it would be illegal.
Yet others are angry about the overtime they stand to lose, arguing that they preferred the status quo.
“What if you prefer money or work over life?” one anonymous office worker told the Straits Times. “I think those who want to work more and thereby make more money should have the right to do so.”
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