Protesters hold placards during a rally against harassment at Shinjuku shopping and amusement district in Tokyo, Japan, April 28, 2018

© 2018 Reuters
(Tokyo) – The Japanese government should reform its laws and policies to end violence and harassment in the workplace, Human Rights Watch said in a letter to Japan’s Labor Policy Council. The council, an advisory body with representatives of workers, employers, and the public interest sector, is considering a first draft of proposals from the Health, Labor, and Welfare Ministry on measures to respond to harassment at work. A decision is expected by the end of 2018.

The Labor Ministry proposals, submitted on November 19, include amending existing laws to define and prevent “power harassment” – a term used in Japan to explain workplace harassment and bullying by a superior – and prohibit retaliation against people who make sexual harassment complaints. The Labor Ministry also proposed guidelines for preventing and responding to harassment by third parties, including clients and business partners. However, the proposals had serious shortcomings, among them that it did not prohibit all harassment or violence at work, but instead would consider banning sexual and power harassment at a later date.

“Japan’s Labor Ministry’s draft proposals on tackling harassment at work show good intentions, but they fall short of prohibiting and punishing in law all forms of workplace harassment and violence,” said Rothna Begum, senior women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The Labor Policy Council should agree on comprehensive reforms that will tackle terrible abuses at work and allow all workers to enjoy their right to a safe working environment.”

If the Labor Policy Council agrees on a set of proposals by the end of December and submits it to the labor minister, the ministry will submit legislation to parliament for consideration in 2019.

Pervasive sexual harassment at work in Japan led to social media and large public protests dubbed #WeToo to express solidarity with victims beyond the self-identification of #MeToo. In early November, the #WeToo movement initiated an online petition to the Labor Policy Council calling for a new or revised law to prohibit workplace harassment and violence. Japan is the only high-income Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) country without a law prohibiting sexual harassment, according to the World Bank. Japan also has no law prohibiting other forms of harassment at work, including “power harassment.”

Numerous studies have highlighted the prevalence of violence and harassment at work in Japan. A 2017 Labor Ministry employee survey found that 32.5 percent of male and female respondents had experienced workplace power harassment in the past three years. Local media have reported egregious cases of power harassment, as well as suicides of victims following allegations of bullying at work.

A survey by the Japan Institute for Labor Policy and Training found that nearly 30 percent of the 9,654 women between the ages of 25 and 44 who responded reported being sexually harassed at work. In an online survey by Workers of Mass Media Information and Culture, 34 out of 428 male and female workers in publishing, broadcast, and print media who responded said that they were either asked in the context of work to go to a hotel or forced to have a sexual relationship. Many said they could not or did not report the sexual harassment or violence because they believed it would not be resolved or could negatively affect their work, among other reasons.

Japan’s Law on Equal Employment Opportunity Between Men and Women obligates employers to take measures to prevent and respond to sexual harassment in the workplace. However, it does not prohibit sexual harassment or provide sanctions against the harassers or redress for victims. There is no legal prohibition on other forms of harassment at work, such as bullying and power harassment. Workers can apply for a conciliation process at the Labor Ministry’s labor reconciliation committees, and courts often address harassment cases, including sexual harassment, as personal injury damages under the Civil Code.

Human Rights Watch raised several concerns and recommendations regarding the Labor Ministry’s proposals. In addition to failing to prohibit all forms of violence and harassment, it does not lay out in law possible sanctions for those found responsible or redress for the victims. A number of proposed measures would be provided only as guidelines, which would lack the force of law and be hard to enforce.

Harassment and violence at work violate workers’ rights and are matters of occupational health and safety, but they also carry serious costs for employers. The International Labour Organization (ILO) has cited numerous studies that show that there are direct financial costs for harassment and violence at work, such as absenteeism, turnover, recruitment, litigation, and compensation. There are also indirect costs in reduced productivity, and “knock on” effects that can harm the enterprise’s reputation, image, and competitiveness.

The ILO is considering an international convention to combat violence and harassment at work. Discussions began at the International Labour Conference in May, and a second and final discussion is scheduled for June 2019. Japan was one of the few countries at the May conference that did not expressly support a binding international convention. In October, Human Rights Watch met with Japanese Labor Ministry officials to present a submission on the convention and to discuss their concerns.

“Employers in Japan should recognize that it’s in their interests as well as their workers’ to support laws prohibiting all forms of violence and harassment at work,” Begum said. “The Japanese government should also seize this momentous opportunity to support an international labor convention to end abuse of all workers around the world.”