Discretionary labor

Mainichi Shimbun, Monday 4 September 1999

Starting next spring, the 40-hour legal workweek will be replaced by a discretionary labor system for many categories of white-collar workers. Under this system, worker performance and salaries will be evaluated on what they actually accomplish, with designated tasks being regarded as equivalent to a certain number of hours worked.

A Ministry of Labor study panel has issued specific guidelines and principles that companies may refer to when switching over to the discretionary format. What categories of jobs are to be targeted for this format and how it is to be implemented are now being considered by the Labor Ministry's Central Labor Standards Council, which should issue its conclusions by the end of the year. There are bound to be many areas where objective standards are difficult to set.

While the new format is aimed at shortening working hours, certain job categories may see their hours grow longer depending on the kind formula that is used to convert tasks to work hours. This revision of the legal workweek was initially part of the amended Labor Standard Law that came into effect in April but was fiercely opposed by Rengo (Japan Trade Union Confederation) owing to its controversial nature. As a consequence, the Diet postponed implementation of the system until next April, attaching a resolution calling for the creation of specific guidelines on how it will be implemented to promote labor-management.

With the growth of the service sector, the era of the majority of the population working in factories has ended. Conversely, the white-collar worker population has expanded, and along with it has come the diversification of work styles. There is a global trend toward flexible working hours, but each nation's labor practices are the result of unique circumstances found there. Japan should not adopt a format unsuited to its culture.

Discretionary working formats have been applied to 11 categories of specialized occupations, such as designers and scientific researchers. With the revision, the range of targeted occupations has been expanded to areas such as corporate planning and analysis.

Workers covered will be those who work not only at the head office but also in major branch and regional offices. They will range from those in managerial planning, personnel, accounting and finances to public relations, sales and production planning. Those in sales who perform only specified tasks or public relations staff who simply proofread documents, for example, will fall outside the framework.

Such criteria make it difficult to draw a line between jobs that fall under the discretionary format and those that do not. Sales personnel, for instance, not only meet with clients but also propose projects and do background research. And few people in public relations are hired simply for proofreading. Labor and management representatives will need to hammer out arrangements applicable to each workplace.

A Rengo survey revealed that only 6 percent of companies that switched to the discretionary system have seen a reduction in working hours. Eighty percent said that the average workday was more than nine hours. Not a few people work late into the night or on weekends, and a significant number take work home.

Unless these practices are stopped, the discretionary format is likely to encourage even longer working hours. We must seek a way to spread the work more evenly and to achieve shorter hours for everyone.