Photo/IllutrationPrime Minister Shinzo Abe apologizes for his comment based on misleading data on the working conditions of workers at a Lower House Budget Committee session on Feb. 14. (Takeshi Iwashita)

The labor ministry admitted Feb. 19 that its data used by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to promote contentious labor reforms was “inappropriate,” drawing allegations from the opposition camp that intentional fabrications were made.

Yoshihisa Tsuchiya, councillor of the Labor Standards Bureau at the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, apologized at a news conference after ministry officials explained the data from the 2013 survey at a directors meeting of the Lower House Budget Committee.

They acknowledged that the survey compared data obtained from different questions, thus distorting the realities of the working conditions between general workers and those working under the “discretionary labor system.”

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga echoed similar views the same day.

The Abe administration is planning a bill that would allow more people to work under discretionary labor contracts, which are generally given to “specialists” who do not work normal hours.

The government says an expanded discretionary labor system would provide workers with a more flexible work style, but the opposition says the plan could lead to further labor abuses.

At a Lower House Budget Committee on Jan. 29, Abe argued for the reforms, saying the ministry’s survey shows that people working under the discretionary labor system work shorter hours on average than general workers.

After opposition lawmakers and labor experts questioned the validity of the data, Abe was forced to apologize and retract his comment on Feb. 14.

According to ministry officials, the questions put to general workers and those working under the discretionary labor system in the survey were different.

For example, general workers were asked about the “longest overtime period” they worked.

The same survey asked people working under the discretionary labor system about the daily “status of their work hours.”

According to the survey, which covered “average” workers at 11,575 entities across the nation, those working specialist jobs under the discretionary work system worked 9 hours and 20 minutes a day on average. Those involved in business planning under the same system averaged 9 hours and 16 minutes.

For general workers, the average longest daily overtime period was 1 hour and 37 minutes.

So, according to the data cited by Abe, general workers put in an average of 9 hours and 37 minutes a day, about 20 minutes longer than those working under discretionary labor system.

Lawmakers of the opposition bloc who heard the ministry’s explanation accused the ministry of deliberately compiling the misleading data and allowing it to be used by the prime minister.

“I suspect that the data was fabricated intentionally to show that workers under the discretionary labor system were putting in shorter hours, compared with general workers,” said Kazunori Yamanoi, a Lower House member of Kibo no To (Hope).

Akihiro Hatsushika, a Lower House member of the main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, accused the ministry of allowing Abe to cite the data despite knowing that the numbers were misleading.

Those working under discretionary labor contracts are paid a predetermined amount that assumes the worker will put in a certain amount of overtime. They are not paid for extra hours worked beyond the assumed time.

Critics say that the legislation could lead to workers putting in even longer overtime hours without being paid the proper amount.

(This article was compiled from reports by Shun Niekawa, Koichi Murakami and Yoichi Yonetani.)