Changing Work Patterns in Japan
By Maria Deutsch
Traditionally, work in Japan meant official hours of nine to six, with two to three hours overtime. These working patterns led to the world’s most crowded commuter trains, and virtually banned women with family from the career track.
Amidst recent fierce competition by Japanese companies over qualified candidates, employers are looking at more flexible work patterns to accommodate wishes from employees and reduce costs, and demand a legal environment to keep up with this changing reality.
The Nihon Keizai (Nikkei) newspaper recently reported several examples of such changing work patterns (16 August 2006). One 40-year-old manager working for an insurance company for example works mainly from home and on the road. He comes to the company office only for meetings, and otherwise communicates by telephone and email. A 39-year-old employee of a large steel manufacturer holds strategic meetings with his colleagues in other local branch offices over mobile phone until well after midnight.
Mobile phones, portable computers, and wireless connections blur the boundaries between work and leisure time for white-collar employees. The Tsukuba express recently started offering commuters a wireless internet connection – used mostly by commuters on their way to and from work, as a survey cited by the Nikkei newspaper showed.
Long hours are common
Publishing companies in Japan generally face tight deadlines, and employees often work non-stop for a few days before a magazine goes to print. Many companies however cannot afford to pay such enormous amounts of overtime. Instead they come up with flexitime models. In one case reported by the Nikkei newspaper (16 August 2006), employees make up for extensive overtime before the deadline with very short days after. The company pays as if they worked for eight hours every day.
Conflict with existing legal environment
If existing legal regulations were strictly applied to this case of flexitime, it would likely turn out to be illegal. The present Labour Standards Law was enacted in 1946, a time where most employed people worked in manufacturing. The boundary between work and leisure was clear-cut then, and time spent at work equalled output. For white-collar employees this is no longer the case.
The Nikkei Shinbun reported an average of approximately 40 hours of overtime per month for civil servants in Kasumigaseki (16 August 2006), and for many company employees the figure is likely to be even higher. If companies paid for all the overtime employees actually put in they would soon find themselves in financial difficulties.
Planned revision of law
Faced with an antiquated legal environment that is no longer reflecting reality, the Labour Policy Advisory Council is discussing a bill for a “White collar exemption” system similar to the American model. Under the “Autonomous Working Time Model” executives with an annual income above a certain level will be able to set their hours flexibly to compensate for overtime.
According to the Nikkei newspaper employers in principle welcome the new system. They say that employees who are allowed time to refresh are more productive. However companies are afraid that the income level above which the exemption applies is set too high for the system to actually work.
Many white collar workers on the other hand are against the white collar exemption. They are afraid that “the system will only allow companies to not pay overtime, and will perpetuate long working hours.”
The big issue for the labour ministry and lawmakers to consider for the revision of the Labour Standards Law planned for next spring is: How can white collar workers gain more flexibility than possible the current one-size-fits-all working time regulations without being forced to constantly put in free overtime?