Japan’s New Overtime Limits Eyed with Trepidation; Labor Shortages Threaten Medical Services, Cargo Transport

Yomiuri Shimbun file photo
A worker loads boxes of apples onto a truck using a forklift in Hirakawa, Aomori Prefecture, on March 6.

Overtime for drivers, construction workers and doctors will be subject to additional restrictions from April 1 as a result of work-style reform legislation, prompting concerns over the “2024 problem,” the possibility that these limitations will interfere with the daily lives of the public.

The legislation was designed to address the problem of long working hours. However, these three job types, which suffer from a chronic labor shortage, were initially granted a five-year grace period.

Loading products to help drivers

In early March, a helmeted employee of the Japan Agricultural Co-operative was loading cardboard boxes of apples onto a truck bound for Tokyo at a warehouse of the JA Tsugaru-Mirai in Hirakawa, Aomori Prefecture.

Previously, truck drivers put the boxes in by hand, a process that took more than two hours. However, JA workers using a forklift can finish in just 15 minutes.

With JA personnel doing the loading, drivers can devote more working hours to operating their vehicles. This is one example of how people are trying to deal with the upcoming restrictions on overtime work.

“Improving work efficiency is essential to keep production centers competitive,” said an official of the Aomori prefectural headquarters of the National Federation of Agricultural Cooperative Associations (Zen-Noh).

The labor shortage is growing worse in regional areas, where the population is shrinking. According to estimates by the Nomura Research Institute, it will become impossible in Aomori Prefecture to transport about 44% of the current amount of cargo in 2030. JAs in the prefecture are working to switch from trucks to freight trains for transporting their products.

End of 5-year grace period

The legislation for work-style reform came into effect in April 2019, and overtime was capped at 45 hours per month and 360 hours per year in principle. Drivers of trucks and buses, construction workers and doctors, whose long working hours have become chronic due to insufficient personnel, have been exempt from this limit for five years.

Starting Monday, however, overtime will be limited to 720 hours a year for construction workers and 960 hours for physicians working at medical institutions, excluding special cases, and drivers.

Doctors’ long working hours are partly responsible for the preservation of medical services. Night and holiday shifts have doctors standing by to provide patients with medical care whenever necessary. If a hospital applies to the Labor Standards Inspection Office for permission to have doctors on duty during the night and on holidays and this is approved, the time for these shifts can be excluded from doctors’ working hours.

“During the shifts, I’m constantly busy and can hardly sleep at all,” said a surgeon at a public hospital in Hyogo Prefecture.

According to the surgeon, if only the time needed for medical services and entering electronic medical data is counted as working hours, and the wait time for lab results is excluded, it looks like they are getting enough rest.

In reality, however, the surgeon cannot rest at all, as they have to do things like get ready for patients who are coming to the hospital and give instructions to nurses. In addition, the time the surgeon spends at academic conferences to learn the latest medical technology is considered an opportunity for self-improvement and not counted as part of their work.

Doctors are chronically in short supply, especially in regional areas, and hospitals will likely have to struggle to ensure enough personnel.

Understanding needed

The construction industry has already begun to experience delays due to shorter working hours.

In December last year, Tokyo’s Edogawa Ward government said a new ward office building would be completed two years later than the initial schedule, since it became evident that enough workers could not be secured due to stricter overtime regulations.

“We took the regulations into consideration, but the shortage of workers was greater than we expected,” said a director of the ward office’s construction engineering section.

The construction industry is also chronically short of workers. According to a labor force survey by the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry, 4.83 million people worked in the industry in 2023, down as many as 1.2 million from 20 years before. The industry’s workforce is graying, with people aged 55 and older accounting for 36%.

The Japan Federation of Construction Contractors has been urging its member companies to shut down their construction sites at least eight days a month. More than 60% of civil engineering projects, which are mostly commissioned by national and local governments, achieved this target in the first half of fiscal 2023. However, only 35% of construction projects, mostly ordered by the private sector, satisfied the goal.

Amid fierce competition for orders for construction projects commissioned by the private sector, many contractors take on projects with shorter construction periods.

“To shorten working hours, it is essential to have the understanding and cooperation of entities that order construction work projects,” said Okumura Corp. President Takanori Okumura, who chairs the National General Contractors Association of Japan.