Premium Friday for Japan's overworked employees

TOKYO • The country that coined the word karoshi, or death from overwork, wants companies to let workers finish early on the last Friday of every month, go out and have fun.

In an effort to curb excessive work hours and to spur consumption, the Japanese government and business groups are launching a “Premium Friday” campaign, scheduled to start on Feb 24.

Although it is unknown how many companies will participate, the nation’s biggest business lobby, Keidanren, has written to its more than 1,300 member companies, encouraging them to take part.

One indication of just how tough it is to change Japan’s rigid work practices: The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (Meti), which is pushing the idea, has not decided yet if its officials can join in. However, Meti Minister Hiroshige Seko said: “I’m giving my secretaries a strict order not to put in any appointments after 3pm (on the first Premium Friday).”

There is a clear relationship between leisure time, holidays and spending, said Mr Toshihiro Nagahama, chief economist at Dai-ichi Life Research Institute in Tokyo.

If most workers participate, private consumption could rise by about 124 billion yen (S$ 1.5 billion) on each Premium Friday, according to his calculations. Private consumption accounts for about 60 per cent of the economy.

But Mr Nagahama said he was concerned that workers at smaller companies may have difficulty leaving early, or that they will have to make the time up on other days, limiting the impact of the campaign.

Japanese workers typically use just half of their annual paid leave entitlements. In part to work around this problem and enforce time away from work, Japan has 16 annual public holidays.

According to Japan’s first White Paper on karoshi, released in October, more than one in five Japanese companies have employees who work such long hours that they are at serious risk of dying from overwork.

Hundreds of deaths from karoshi due to strokes, heart attacks and suicides are reported every year, along with a host of serious health problems. The phenomenon has sparked lawsuits and calls to urgently tackle the problem.

The issue came under renewed scrutiny following the death of a 24-year-old employee of Japan’s biggest advertising agency Dentsu.

Ms Matsuri Takahashi committed suicide on Christmas Day last year at a company dormitory. She had worked more than 100 hours of overtime every month since joining the company in April that year, Japanese media reported.

The Japanese authorities have since referred Dentsu and one of its executives to prosecutors on suspicion of violating Japan’s labour law .

BLOOMBERG, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

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