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Top>Opinion>Aiming for Labour Sustainability


Tetsu Washitani

Tetsu Washitani [Profile]

Aiming for Labour Sustainability

Tetsu Washitani
Professor, Faculty of Economics, Chuo University
Area of Specialization: Social Policy

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Female factory worker labour in the era of Shokko Jijo (a report on the actual conditions for factory workers)

Established 101 years ago, the Factory Act was designed to improve the harsh working conditions primarily for female factory workers in the textile industry, particularly those working long hours late into the night. The Commerce and Industry Bureau at the Ministry of Agriculture and Commerce, which led in establishing the Factory Act, conducted investigations at factories nationwide in order to shed light on the actual conditions of employment and working conditions for factory workers. According to this Shokko Jijo report (1903), day and night shift systems-with eleven-hour and eleven-and-a-half-hour work shifts, excluding breaks-were common at the spinning mills of the day. The typical day shift was from 6:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m., and the typical night shift involved working from 6:00 p.m. to 6:00 a.m. the next day. As all-night work was unbearable for the average worker, there were many absentees, and in order to make up for them, female factory workers who had finished their day shifts were often ordered to stay and work twenty-four hours, through to the next morning. Though extreme, it was not rare for these workers to continue working further the next day, through the day shift-for 36 hours straight. Holidays at the weekend were one day at most, and working hours were upwards of 66 hours per week. At the same time, workers alternated by the week doing night work, and further, early arrival, overtime work, and working on days off became the normal condition.

As evidence that working such long hours and doing night work are health hazards, the investigator who authored this item measured the fluctuations in body weight of some 81 female factory workers at a spinning mill to show the deleterious health effects of working nights.

The results showed that the initial average body weight of 36.659 kg fell to 36.021 kg after one week of working nights. This average body weight increased to 36.280 kg after the following one week of working days. Less than half of the body weight lost in the significant drop while working nights was recovered during being on a day-shift, and the bodies of the workers were in a state of reduced reproduction. This labour was unsustainable, and as a result, many women contracted diseases such as tuberculosis and quite a few lost their lives at a young age.

Sustainability of labour today

Has this kind of harsh labour become a thing of the past? The answer is no. The existence of karoshi (death from overwork) and karojisatsu (suicide induced by overwork) indicates that even the Labour Standards Act cannot sever the path from labour to death. In terms of work-related deaths in 2010, the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare recognized 113 people who died by karoshi, and 65 who died by karojisatsu. This is just the tip of the iceberg, however, as behind the scenes there are many cases that are not recognized as work-related deaths or do not even lead to claims as work-related deaths.

Let us examine the reality of the long working hours that are the primary cause of karoshi and karojisatsu. According to the results of the 2010 Labour Force Survey conducted by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, 5,020,000 people work 60 hours or more per week, comprising 9.4% of the total. When converted to annual working hours, this figure of 60 hours a week comes to 3,120 hours.

Without taking a single day of annual paid leave, the Labour Standards Act maximum of forty hours per week would amount to working a total of 2,080 in the course of a year-40 x 52 weeks = 2,080. Factoring in one of the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare criteria for karoshi: Overtime work exceeding approximately 80 hours in a month over a 6 month period, the total amounts to 2,080 + 80 x 6 = 2,560 hours. Even working 80 hours of overtime continually for a year does not reach the figure of 3,120 hours, and there are over five million workers who work in excess of the criteria for karoshi, by far.

Determining the problems of long working hours and what the solutions bring

First, the adverse health effects of long working hours have remained the same throughout the ages.

Second, long working hours encroach on the personal lives of workers and put a strain on their family lives. Japanese men who work long hours do significantly less housework compared to European men, which causes women to accept the responsibility to do most of the housework, and in turn inhibits social progress for women. Shorter working hours, conversely, are a prerequisite for achieving joint social participation among men and women.

Third, shorter working hours naturally ensure workers' personal lives, and this enhancement increases the potential of workers, including their capacity to work.

Fourth, on the expansion of employment through work sharing: it is the height of irony that at the same time that the unemployment rate is high and there are a great many temporary workers, there are also companies that are shorthanded and employees working long hours. Reducing working hours, and in turn offsetting the labour shortage with new hiring, would resolve the problems of working hours and employment at the same time.

Fifth, there is great potential for enhancing economic vitality though a fuller leisure life.

Sixth, while extended working hours may lead to profits for companies in the short term, they may lead to reduced quality and productivity in the medium and long term as a result of increased worker fatigue. Further, companies that impose long working hours may earn the reputation of being sweatshops, and the like. Decent working conditions, on the other hand, lead to acquiring excellent workers.

Seventh, we must provide fair conditions for global competitiveness. The economic power of Japan cannot lead in a race to the bottom by using cost reductions through extended working hours as a primary factor in global competition.

Political prospects for shorter working hours

In order to reduce working hours we must, at a minimum, strictly adhere to the Labour Standards Act, and specifically, eliminate unpaid overtime, make procedures more stringent for electing parties to agreements on overtime, and the like. In addition, fundamental reform of the Labour Standards Act should be considered, with a particular focus on policies for overtime work regulations. Following two points of the EU Directive on Working Hours, for example-setting an absolute maximum of working hours including overtime, and enshrining into law a minimum period of hours required between the end of the work schedule one day and the start of the work schedule the following day-would bring significant change to working hours in our country.

Tetsu Washitani
Professor, Faculty of Economics, Chuo University
Area of Specialization: Social Policy
Born in Aichi prefecture in 1948. Graduated from the Faculty of Economics at the University of Tokyo in 1972. Took up his current position in 1995 after serving as a Tokyo metropolitan government official and Director of Research at the Institute for Science of Labour.
Primary research subjects include field surveys on the work and lives of workers in Japan. Specifically, research subjects comprise issues such as employment, wages, working hours, personal hours, and the like.
Recent papers include "The History and Reality of Long Working Hours [Chojikan Rodo no Rekishi to Genjitsu]" (Economics, No. 195, December, 2011), and his joint works include The New Liberalism and Labour [Shin-jiyu-shugi to Rodo] (Ochanomizu Shobo, 2010).