Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on March 1 expressed his intention to drop a provision to expand the so-called “discretionary working system” from the government’s work style reform bill.

Abe’s move came in response to growing criticism about the government’s efforts to push through the labor deregulation measure, which was supported by flawed survey data.

But Abe ruled out dropping another controversial provision to introduce the so-called “sophisticated professionals system,” which would exempt certain high-paid specialist jobs from regulations concerning working hours. This is an even more radical deregulation measure than the “discretionary working” proposal, which could allow employers to unfairly limit overtime pay.

Abe’s response is far from satisfactory. The administration should also eliminate the “professionals” provision from the bill as well and start from scratch with its labor regulation reform.

Instead of pushing such questionable deregulation, the administration should focus on acting swiftly to enhance regulations to prevent overwork.

In explaining the reason for his decision to drop the "discretionary working" proposal, Abe said the public has become “skeptical about the data,” referring to the findings of a labor ministry survey used to promote the policy initiative.

But the credibility and relevance of the data is not the only question that is being asked.

There are legitimate concerns that the proposed deregulation to ease the legal requirements concerning overtime pay could remove the brakes on overtime, worsening the serious problem of long working hours.

The fundamental problem here is the government’s failure to make a convincing response to these concerns. Abe’s decision has done nothing to change this situation.

The principal objective of the work style reform should be to put a legal maximum on overtime and thereby address the problem of long working hours.

The two proposals in question would create big loopholes in the tightened regulations concerning working hours.

Under the "discretionary working system," 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. They are only paid for the predetermined overtime hours no matter how long they actually work.

The “sophisticated professionals system” would exclude high-paying expert jobs from the protective shield of regulations. Such professionals would not receive premium pay for midnight or holiday work, either.

This system could do even more to exacerbate the already serious problem of long working hours than the “discretionary working system.”

Abe still stresses the advantages of these systems, pointing out that employees would be able to decide on their own how long they work. But the reality is that at most workplaces such employees are not allowed to determine the amount of work they have to do.

The discretionary working system bans companies from making specific instructions about how and when employees covered by the system should actually work. But this rule is not observed in many cases.

The “sophisticated professionals” proposal doesn’t even include a rule to prohibit such instructions.

The Abe administration has decided on these measures to ease labor regulations as part of its policy efforts to stoke economic growth. The labor ministry’s advisory council has rubber-stamped them.

The council endorsed the proposals despite opposition voiced by members representing the labor community. It is hard to claim that there has been sufficient and meaningful policy debate on these measures.

That’s why the original bill to enact these measures that was submitted to the Diet three years ago was scrapped without deliberation.

The way the administration has been trying to enact these deregulation measures by bundling them with provisions to tighten regulations on overtime has been roundly criticized.

The administration has shown a disturbing tendency to see only data favorable for its policies and refuse to pay serious attention to critical and dissenting voices.

The confusion of the Diet deliberations on the bill is a product of the administration’s headlong rush to get the legislation passed without any willingness to reconsider it in response to objections.

Abe needs to realize that his approach to policymaking itself has been called into question.

--The Asahi Shimbun, March 2