Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and labor minister Katsunobu Kato have retracted and apologized for their remarks at the Diet concerning a key component of the government’s labor reform initiative.

Abe and Kato have taken back what they recently said about the government’s proposal to expand the so-called “discretionary working system,” under which employees are deemed to have worked the number of hours prescribed by an advance agreement between labor and management regardless of the actual number of hours they have put in.

The two took the action after opposition parties questioned the credibility of the labor ministry’s data they used to stress the benefits of the system.

The Abe administration is seeking to expand the system as part of its “work style reform” initiative, which it has cast as its top domestic policy priority.

Their criticized argument for the proposal has raised important questions about their basic stance toward labor reform that requires more than the simple act of withdrawing the remarks.

The administration should rethink its overzealous pursuit of labor deregulation including the expansion of the system and pay more careful attention to concerns and anxiety among workers.

The reform proposal should be redesigned from the viewpoint of its original goal of addressing the problem of long working hours, which is the most urgent issue concerning Japan’s working culture.

The remarks in question were made in a Lower House Budget Committee session on Jan. 29.

In response to an opposition lawmaker’s argument that expanding the discretionary working system could promote long working hours and result in an increase in “karoshi,” or death from overwork, Abe claimed that certain data indicated the average working hours among people covered by the system is shorter than that of general workers.

Underlying his argument is the view that the system will help realize a more flexible work style and a better work-life balance.

But Abe used the findings of a flawed 2013 labor ministry survey to support his argument.

The survey didn’t produce statistically accurate data about average nor actual working hours among people covered by the system.

Various problems have also been found with data concerning working hours of general workers, calling the survey’s credibility into question.

A survey of workers conducted around the same time by the Japan Institute for Labor Policy and Training found that the average monthly working hours among employees under the system tended to be longer than the average for ordinary workers.

The system’s potential flaws came to the fore recently when the Nomura Real Estate Development Co. was ordered by authorities to stop applying the system, designed only for management-related jobs, to sales representatives.

In a devious campaign to promote its labor deregulation initiative, the Abe administration has repeatedly contended that widening the scope of the system is a reform that would serve the interests of workers while failing to mention its potential downsides. The administration is trying to pull the wool over the public’s eyes.

The business community has been ardently lobbying for expansion of the discretionary working system along with another radical deregulation measure--the creation of the so-called “sophisticated professionals system,” which would exempt employees engaged in certain high-paid specialist jobs from regulations concerning working hours. Opposition parties criticize the latter as a “no overtime pay” scheme.

In the face of opposition from the labor community, the government submitted a bill for these steps to the Diet in 2015. But the legislation has since been gathering dust in the Diet.

The administration is plotting to tuck these controversial measures into its work style reform package of bills, which also contain some measures demanded by labor, such as introducing an upper limit on overtime. This is a crafty and dishonest way to enact controversial changes in labor regulations.

The government is poised to submit the package of bills to the Diet. But it should not include the dubious and questionable measures for labor deregulation.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Feb. 15