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HomeeconomyDrivers draw short straw in Japan’s labour law reforms

Drivers draw short straw in Japan’s labour law reforms


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Japan’s 2019 labour law reforms included five-year exemptions for socially important occupations known for long work hours. In April 2024, the exemptions will end and overtime limits will take effect for all workers. In the transportation sector, a government campaign to improve logistics has aimed to reduce freight-dock waiting times and hand-loading to shorten driver work hours. It is hoped that part-time workers, particularly women and older men, will be attracted to fill the chronic vacancies in this critical field.

Most freight in Japan is carried by trucks. E-commerce growth during the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted drivers’ essential role. The long work hours of taxi and bus drivers are also reform targets. Labour shortages have already forced rural bus schedule reductions.

Despite their long hours, full-time truck drivers’ average salaries are 20 to 25 per cent lower than other occupations. Small, highly leveraged firms make up most of the industry. Many are subcontractors, dependent on a single large firm for work and capital, yet appear to be organisationally separate. These firms are easily squeezed and their margins are slim. Driver unions are rare. Exploitation and labour law violations are common.

Driver overwork is a public health issue. Drivers suffer from fatigue, loneliness, poor food and the sedentary character of their work. Crowded roads and electronic surveillance exacerbate mental stress. Freight handling is physically taxing. Almost 84 per cent of truck drivers hit by strokes and cardiac events collapsed during work. Drivers comprised 34.3 per cent of 2021’s compensated cases of karoshi, serious afflictions or deaths due to overwork. Truck-related accidents are another symptom — despite falling traffic accident rates, truck accidents are increasing, led by rear-end collisions and pedestrians struck in crosswalks, suggesting that safety is being compromised by haste and inattention.

A Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare (MHLW) subcommittee investigation of trucking during the exemption period found violations at 83 per cent of the companies surveyed. Illegally long hours made up half of the violations, followed by unpaid wages. A 2021 survey of selected drivers and firms found about a quarter of firms with required attendance hours above 3300 hours per year. Pre-reform, no industry-wide limit on legal overtime was set.

Post-reform, trucker overtime of 960 hours per year will be permitted at the employer’s discretion. Up to 100 overtime hours in any month and no more than an average of 80 overtime hours over a two-to-six-month period are the new limits. Eighty overtime hours per month is the threshold for granting worker compensation in cases of overwork-induced depression, injury or death. Actual maximum work hours post-reform will be 3300 per year, requiring only minor hours reductions by even egregious firms. This revelation provoked an audible sigh of relief from trucking company bosses at a MHLW seminar on improving transport industry logistics in 2019.

The Labour Lawyers Association of Japan criticised the new overtime limits, noting that work hours for drivers are near the limits of human endurance. Citing long total hours of required attendance at work as a factor in circulatory diseases, the lawyers’ statement also assailed administrative foot-dragging and contradictions in the work hours reforms. Post-reform, bus drivers’ hours of required attendance can still be 281 hours per month. For taxi drivers the figure is 288 hours. Both exceed the reformed overtime limits for those occupations.

As a passenger-protection remedy, the lawyers called for an EU-style ‘interval system’. In this system, nine hours rest is guaranteed and a duty is placed on employers to provide 11 hours between shifts — 15 or 13-hour days — with three days per week when nine hours rest will be permitted. Despite high karoshi rates in trucking, no interval for truck drivers is included in the reforms.

The so-called 2024 problem, which will also affect doctors and construction workers, will not be easily resolved. Suggestions include allowing foreign workers to drive and shortening transport times by raising speed limitsSelf-driving trucks, to run in designated truck-only lanes, are being tested — but ‘last mile’ issues remain. Multi-story parking areas are being considered for overcrowded rest stops that make mandatory rest periods difficult for long-haul drivers. Over taxi industry objections, ridesharing apps seem likely to be allowed, albeit under strict, almost nonsensical conditions.

In October 2023, the Labour Standards Bureau announced the dispatch of ‘Truck G-Men’ to conduct ‘concentrated supervision’ of the industry. Using five types of administrative guidance including hearings, government demands for improvement and public revelations of those demands, supervision is designed to expedite shipping and receiving freight. Firms that model best practices will be publicly lauded, but punishments are unlikely. Meanwhile, drivers worry that shorter hours will lower their wages by reducing overtime pay.

Japan’s Labour Standards Act stipulates an eight-hour day and a 40 hour week. In principle, overtime is not permitted. Enforcing these provisions of existing laws would protect worker health, making reform superfluous. But the MHLW’s Labour Standards Inspectors are purposely few. Strong enforcement could strain relations with employers, upon whom the ministry relies for voluntary data reporting.

Careful study is needed to assess whether these reforms will improve conditions for transport workers and thereby boost the industry’s labour force. Irregular and part-time workers are significantly less burdensome for employers, but there is a sense that the industry’s hope is for technological solutions rather than regulatory ones.

Scott North is Professor Emeritus and Director of the North American Center for Academic Initiatives, Osaka University.


The post Drivers draw short straw in Japan’s labour law reforms first appeared on East Asia Forum.


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