Friday, February 13, 2015

New law will require Japan’s workaholics to take days off

36-year-old Eriko Sekiguchi worries she’ll never get married or find a boyfriend if she’s
36-year-old Eriko Sekiguchi worries she’ll never get married or find a boyfriend if she’s not in the office. AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko. Source: AP
 
COLLEGE-educated and gainfully employed 36-year-old Eriko Sekiguchi should be a sought-after friend or date, planning nights on the town and faraway resort holidays. But she works in Japan, a nation where workaholic habits die hard. 

Often toiling 14 hours a day for a major trading company, including early morning meetings and after-hours “settai,” or networking with clients, she used just eight of her 20 paid holiday days last year. Six of those days were for being sick.

“Nobody else uses their vacation days,” said Sekiguchi, who was so busy her interview with The Associated Press had to be rescheduled several times before she could pop out of the office.

36-year-old Eriko Sekiguchi often toils for 14 hours a day for a major trading company. A
36-year-old Eriko Sekiguchi often toils for 14 hours a day for a major trading company. AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko Source: AP
 
The government wants to change all that.

Legislation that will be submitted during the parliamentary session that began January 26 aims to ensure workers get the rest they need. In a break with past practice, it will become the legal responsibility of employers to ensure workers take their holidays.

Japan has been studying such legislation for years. There has been more impetus for change since 2012 as a consensus developed that the health, social and productivity costs of Japan’s extreme work ethic were too high.

Part of the problem has been that many people fear resentment from co-workers if they take days off, a real concern in a conformist culture that values harmony.

After all, in Japan, only wimps use up all their holiday days.

Most of the affected workers are “salarymen” or “OL” for office ladies like Sekiguchi, so dedicated to their jobs they can’t seem to go home. They are the stereotypes of, and the power behind, Japan Inc.

Workers fear resentment from other co-workers if they take days off. AP Photo/Shuji Kajiy
Workers fear resentment from other co-workers if they take days off. AP Photo/Shuji Kajiyama. Source: AP
 
That has come with its social costs. Sekiguchi worries she will never get married or even find a boyfriend, unless he happens to be in the office. She wishes companies would simply shut down now and then to allow workers to take days off without qualms.

The workaholic lifestyle and related reluctance of couples to raise children have long been blamed as a factor behind the nosediving birthrate that’s undermining the world’s third-biggest economy.

Working literally to death is a tragedy so common that a term has been coined for it: “karoshi.” The government estimates there are 200 karoshi deaths a year from causes such as heart attacks or cerebral haemorrhaging after working long hours. It’s aware of many cases of mental depression and suicides from overwork not counted as karoshi.

Eriko used just eight of her 20 paid holiday days last year. Six of those days were for b
Eriko used just eight of her 20 paid holiday days last year. Six of those days were for being sick. AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko. Source: AP
 
About 22 per cent of Japanese work more than 49 hours a week, compared with 16 per cent of Americans, 11 per cent of the French and Germans, according to data compiled by the Japanese government. South Koreans seem even more workaholic, at 35 per cent.

Barely half the hoilday days allotted to Japanese workers are ever taken, an average of nine days per individual a year.

The problem in Japan in some ways parallels the situation of American workers, many of whom don’t get guaranteed paid holidays at all. But those who get them usually do take all or most of them.

Japanese must use their holidays for sick days, although a separate law guarantees two-thirds of their wages if they get seriously ill and take extended days off.

That means workers save two or three holiday days for fear of catching a cold or some other minor illness so they can stay home, said Yuu Wakebe, the Health and Labor Ministry official overseeing such standards.

Workers taking a rare lunch break. AP Photo/Shizuo Kambayashi.
Workers taking a rare lunch break. AP Photo/Shizuo Kambayashi. Source: AP
 
Wakebe himself routinely does 100 hours of overtime a month, and took only five days off last year, one of them for staying home with a cold. He managed to take a holiday to Hawaii with his family.

“It is actually a worker’s right to take paid vacations,” he said. “But working in Japan involves quite a lot of a volunteer spirit.”

Younger workers feel uncomfortable going home before their bosses do. Working overtime for free, called “sah-bee-soo zahn-gyo,” or “service overtime,” is prevalent.

Job descriptions also tend to be vague, especially in white-collar occupations, meaning a person not coming in translates to more work for others in his or her team.

The new law will allow for more flexible work hours, encouraging parents to spend more time with their children during summer months, for instance, when school is closed.

Commuters walk through a train station during morning rush hour in Tokyo. AP Photo/Koji S
Commuters walk through a train station during morning rush hour in Tokyo. AP Photo/Koji Sasahara, Source: AP
 
Although Japan is notorious for hard work, it’s equally known for inefficiency and bureaucracy. Workers sit around in the name of team spirit, despite questionable performance and productivity.

Experts say the law is a start, while acknowledging the roots of the dilemma lie deep.

When night falls in Tokyo, groups of dark-suited salarymen can be seen, drinking at drab lantern-bobbing pubs under the train tracks, unwinding before heading home. They laugh, guzzle down their beers and pick at charcoal-broiled fish.

Ask any of them: they haven’t taken many days off. One said the 12 days he took off last year were too many.

Regulating time off might be easier to implement if the economy improves under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s anti-deflationary policies that weakened the yen, a plus for giant exporters such as Toyota Motor Corp.

The overwork problem intensified during the past two decades of economic stagnation in Japan. The use of cheap labour became common to stay competitive in a rapidly globalising economy, while the culture of loyalty to the company stayed.

Abe, not a person noted for taking long holidayss, has been stressing the need for change.

Japan’s work ethic, he said, is “a culture that falsely beatifies long hours.”

New legislation in Japan aims to ensure that workers get the rest they need. AP Photo/Eug
New legislation in Japan aims to ensure that workers get the rest they need. AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko. Source: AP

news.com.au 10 Feb 2015

The brilliant brainwashing of an entire nation into mindless corporate slaves.

Well done!
 

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