Suicide at Japan's top ad agency puts overtime on the reform agenda

Fri Nov 4, 2016 2:10am EDT
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By Stanley White and Teppei Kasai

TOKYO (Reuters) - In April last year, Matsuri Takahashi, a promising graduate of Japan's top university, landed a job at Dentsu, one of the country’s most prestigious advertising agencies, renowned for its hard-driving work culture. Nine months later, she jumped to her death, leaving behind a trail of public grievances on social media about her relentless working hours and boss's verbal abuse.

Japan's labor ministry last month ruled the 24-year-old's death "karoshi", literally "death by overwork" and raided her employer, Dentsu Inc, to see if overwork abuses were pervasive in the company.

For many Japanese, Takahashi's death is the tragic consequence of Article 36 of Japan's labor code, which leaves overtime pay and limits to the discretion of employers and typically benign unions.

That loophole could be challenged as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe embarks on a wide-reaching campaign to reform Japan's employment laws, which could include stiffer overtime regulation for companies.

"The law does not prevent companies from working employees beyond reasonable limits," said Emiko Teranishi, head of the Families Dealing with Karoshi, a support group. "The unions are also responsible because they accept these conditions."

Such groups say companies often intimidate employees, especially new hires, into working excessive hours to prove their worth.

Japan's first white paper on karoshi released last month showed 22.7 percent of 1,743 companies surveyed had employees who in the past year worked more than 80 hours of overtime in a month, the government's threshold for karoshi.

Takahashi clocked 105 hours of overtime in October 2015 and fell into depression the following month, a summary provided by her family's lawyer citing the government report showed.   Continued...

A female job seeker takes part in a job hunting counseling session with advisers during a job fair held for fresh graduates in Tokyo, Japan, March 20, 2016. REUTERS/Yuya Shino/File Photo