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Parties spar over overtime system as gov’t accused of bending data

TOKYO — Japan’s ruling and opposition parties wrangled Monday over a proposed expansion of an overtime work system, with the opposition suggesting the government deliberately manipulated a survey to make it look like the system could improve the country’s chronic overwork problem.

 

Monday’s session of the House of Representatives Budget Committee was briefly halted amid heated debate after labor minister Katsunobu Kato apologized for the “inappropriate” survey in 2013, which he said compared data measured using two different methods.

 

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had used the data in the same committee late last month in support of expanding the “discretionary labor” system. After the reliability of the data came into doubt last week, he retracted that remark and apologized.

 

Under the discretionary labor system, employees are given a fixed number of overtime hours and are paid on the assumption that they worked those hours, meaning any further overtime is unpaid.

 

The system is currently only applicable in certain fields, but a proposed working practices reform bill would expand its application.

 

The government says this would lead to a more flexible working environment, and business lobbies support the move. But labor unions say it could worsen the problem of overwork, which often results in suicides and other deaths.

 

Originally, the government had planned to submit the bill to the Diet later this month, but it will now likely be delayed to March. Six opposition parties agreed Monday to stand against the bill’s submission.

 

The 2013 survey on working hours by the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry concluded that the average worker on a discretionary labor contract generally works shorter hours than one on a conventional contract.

 

The survey asked workers in the discretionary system how many hours they worked in a day.

 

But the conventionally employed workers were asked to recall the day they had worked longest in the space of a month. The number of overtime hours they worked on that day was added to the legal working day of eight hours to come up with the figure.

 

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, the government’s top spokesman, admitted at a press conference that the use of different survey methods was “highly inappropriate.”

 

Akira Nagatsuma, acting leader of the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, the largest opposition force in the lower house, said at a meeting that he suspects the ministry intended to make working hours seem shorter among the discretionary workers in anticipation of the opposition’s assertions to the contrary.

 

Yuichiro Tamaki, leader of the opposition Party of Hope, said during a visit to Fukushima Prefecture that changes to the discretionary system should be scrapped from the bill altogether.

 

A senior ministry official told reporters that ministry analysts “were not aware they were comparing different (data)” when compiling the survey results.

 

“There is no way they intentionally made up the figures,” the official said.

 

But the official said the report was generally sloppy, with at least three instances of simple errors, including 45 overtime hours recorded in a single day.

 

Kato said he was aware of the flaws on Feb. 7 and vowed to look into details as to why the comparison was made with data measured using two different methods.

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