Revamped labor regulations are in the cards to exempt certain categories of well-paid specialist jobs from overtime work.

Rengo (Japanese Trade Union Confederation), the nation’s largest labor lobby, has given its support to a government bill to introduce the system. This represents a reversal of policy.

The bill is designed to revise the Labor Standards Law to allow employers to eliminate additional payments for overtime, late-night and public holiday work done by specialists earning above a certain threshold.

In a meeting with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Rengo's chairman, Rikio Kozu, said the umbrella labor organization is willing to accept the bill with minor modifications. Abe signaled his willingness to agree to this. The government is now expected to revise the bill, which was submitted to the Diet in April 2015, with an eye to gaining passage during an autumn extraordinary Diet session.

But this deregulation could have the opposite effect of reducing long working hours as it removes the burden of overtime pay for employers, which serves as a brake on extra work.

Rengo itself had cautioned that this needed to be corrected.

For member labor unions, Rengo’s about-face on the issue came as a bolt out of the blue.

There are many concerns and questions about both the modifications demanded by Rengo and the way it went about reaching the decision.

The changes to the bill proposed by Rengo would require companies to ensure that their employees take off at least 104 days a year. This is now one of the options for companies to choose in order to protect the health of employees.

Rengo’s proposal would also require companies to adopt at least one of the following four measures for employee welfare: setting an upper limit on working hours; introducing interval rules to guarantee workers a certain rest period between the end of a working day and the start of the next shift; allowing employees to take a two-week annual vacation; and introducing special medical checkups for employees in addition to mandatory annual health examinations.

But these measures are not sufficient to protect the health of workers. Not surprisingly, Rengo’s proposals provoked bitter criticism and deep disappointment among not just families of the victims of “karoshi,” or death from overwork, but also among people within the mammoth labor organization itself.

Allowing employeers to take off 104 days a year amounts to nothing more than five days work a week without national holidays. Since the proposed rule would only require a minimum of four days off in four weeks, four consecutive days off at the beginning and the end of eight weeks would allow 48 consecutive working days. Moreover, there would be no limit to working hours.

One of the four options--special medical checkups--is clearly a gift for employers, offering an easy way to meet the rules.

This is likely to serve as a disincentive for employers to adopt a ceiling on working hours or interval rules.

This is a very important policy shift for labor unions. But Rengo’s decision was made under the leadership of top executives without sufficient debate involving member unions or other stakeholders.

Rengo’s move could raise serious doubt over its commitment to its role as the central organization of labor unions and the representative of workers' rights.

This proposal to ease labor regulations was first debated during Abe's first administration in response to a request from the business community. But it was dropped in the face of broad and strong opposition.

Two years ago, the second Abe administration submitted the bill to the Diet. But it has never been debated on the Diet floor and hardly ever discussed at meetings of the government’s council on reform of the way Japanese work.

Topping the agenda for the extraordinary Diet session is a plan to reform the working culture. Key features would include “the same pay for the same work” rule and a legal upper limit on overtime work.

But the bill to ease labor regulations should not be quietly slipped into the reform blueprint for enactment without sufficient debate on these key questions.

We call for sincere and honest debate on the proposal from the viewpoint of the fundamental purpose of the Labor Standards Law, which is to protect the rights and livelihoods of workers.

--The Asahi Shimbun, July 16