Feeling betrayed, labor unions lashed out at their leaders' move toward accepting a government bill that would allow employers to withhold overtime pay from high-income professionals.
Rengo (Japanese Trade Union Confederation) showed it will accept the revised bill during a meeting between its chairman, Rikio Kozu, and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the prime minister's office in Tokyo on July 13.
Kozu apparently won some modifications to the bill, but he allowed the government to retain a stipulation stating that workers with professional skills who earn 10.75 million yen (about $94,800) or more a year are not subject to labor regulations and, therefore, not entitled to overtime pay.
Rengo’s flip-flop on this issue has infuriated member unions of Rengo.
"The procedures (taken by Rengo) are undemocratic and extremely problematic," Takeshi Suzuki, chairman of the Japan Community Union Federation (JCUF), said in a statement. "It is an act of betrayal against its members. We can never approve the move."
The JCUF mainly represents dispatch workers.
The bill to revise the Labor Standards Law was submitted to the Diet in April 2015.
However, opposition parties and Rengo strongly opposed the legislation, calling it a "zero overtime pay bill," and deliberations have been stalled for more than two years.
Kozu entered the July 13 meeting with Abe with demands for modifications to prevent excessive overwork but knowing the ruling parties have enough strength in the Diet to force the passage of the bill.
Rengo is expected to accept the revised bill if the government accepts the demands.
The government does plan to accept certain modifications requested by Rengo, including one obliging companies to ensure their employees take at least 104 days off a year.
But in an apparent compromise, Kozu backed away from his demands for changes to the stipulation about not paying professionals for overtime work.
Workers subject to the stipulation include analysts, consultants, foreign exchange dealers, research and development employees, and developers of financial products.
Rengo’s compromise was initiated by the organization’s No. 2 man, Naoto Omi, head of its secretariat.
After the meeting with Abe, Kozu explained that something had to be done to modify the bill.
"The current bill is extremely insufficient to manage workers’ health," he told reporters. "If the bill were to pass the Diet as it is, we could not endure it. My thinking as a responsible person is to modify it as much as possible.
Kozu also quoted Abe as saying, "The government will firmly accept and examine (Rengo’s request)."
Rengo will likely conclude a tripartite agreement with the government and Keidanren (Japanese Business Federation) by July 19. The revised bill, including the modifications, will then be submitted to an extraordinary Diet session to be held in autumn.
Rengo, however, is already facing a backlash not only from its members but also from families of workers who died of excessive work.
"Karoshi," or death from overwork, has long been a problem in Japan, and the issue recently came under the spotlight again after an overworked rookie employee at advertising giant Dentsu Inc. killed herself.
Emiko Teranishi, representative of Zenkoku Karoshi o Kangaeru Kazoku no Kai, a nationwide group of families trying to prevent karoshi, called Rengo’s shift in position "unbelievable."
"Chairman Kozu had been strongly opposed to the zero overtime pay, but he suddenly changed his stance," she said.
She also criticized the latest modifications proposed by Rengo.
"I don’t think they are sufficient in any way to prevent death from overwork," Teranishi said.