Overtime - Part I

Overtime - Part I

Everyone knows that the Japanese as a nation are workaholics - it's been like that for decades. Surely you knew at least this one fact about Japan before you came here, so although you do have rights (outlined below), you will surely be upsetting the apple cart if you start complaining about working too many hours and you're working less than 40 hours overtime a month. Instead, it helps to understand the rules and standards, so that you can get the most out of the working time that you do put in.

First a little background. Although the official base working week is 40 hours (48 hours for some professions), in actual fact, most Japanese companies expect their people to put in at least another 20 hours a month in unpaid overtime. This number comes from the expectation that people will arrive at work 20-30 minutes early, to prepare for the working day, and leave 30-40 minutes after the official quitting time to clean up and take care of last minute issues. As there are about 22 days in the average work month, that adds up to 20+ hours.

Although companies cannot legally force you to work even these extra 20 hours a month, in fact the reality is that if you want the job, you're probably going to have to get used to this requirement. It's the norm for Japanese employees at 99% of firms, and you should know by now that in Japan you either fit in with the "norm" or can expect dismissal for "not being able to fit in". At least with smaller companies, if you do work these extra hours, then you have a better chance of promotion (higher pay) and gaining a reputation as being reliable - an important factor when you start asking for time off to go home at the end of the year, or for sickness, etc.

At what point should unpaid overtime be considered payable? Clearly it depends on your company and your willingness to pursue your rights under the law. For smaller, very Japanese firms, and especially IT and software firms, the quitting time is when the work is done. So it's not unusual for employees of such companies to stay back until midnight or later. Needless to say the staff turnover of such firms is also very high, as people start to wear out from the harsh schedule.

In larger companies, quitting time is unofficially when the Bucho packs up for the evening. In most companies this is around 20:00 or 21:00. People leaving before the boss know that they are jeopardizing their promotion chances. Furthermore, due to the ongoing recession, most companies require their employees to get permission before working overtime, which requires a level of temerity that most Japanese employees don't have - therefore they tend to work the extra hours unpaid. As a foreigner, however, so long as you get a signature on a memo authorizing the overtime, your company will pay it, or suffer the legal consequences.

In either size company, they have the legal right to expect you to come in a bit earlier than starting time and finish a few minutes (usually 15 to 30 minutes later) after you finish your formal hours. For this reason, many companies don't consider the first 30 to 60 minutes after the end of the official day as real overtime and don't expect to pay for it. Time after this, however, is overtime in most people's definition, and the issue is usually just one of whether you're allowed/required to work that time and get paid for it.

In addition, the law allows for a company to ask employees to work longer or irregular hours if unusual or difficult business circumstances warrant it. Basically the Japanese legal code considers a healthy economy and full employment to be more important than the occasional transgression of the employment law and thus has plenty of exceptions for employers to operate under - so long, that is, that the overtime being required is not injurious to one's health. As mentioned previously, whenever the company asks you formally to work overtime, then they are supposed to pay - or if the work rules provide for it, then at least give you time off in lieu.

Terrie Lloyd is the founder of DaiJob Inc. He also writes a weekly newsletter for entrepreneurs and business people, about business and political opportunities in Japan. You can find the newsletter at www.terrie.com.

For further contact with Terrie, email him at terrie.lloyd@daijob.com.