In another age they might have been called slave-drivers. Today the operative term is “black kigyo” (‘“black companies”), black because of the way they work their staff – to death in the very worst cases (“karoshi,” death from overwork, is readily comprehensible even among non-Japanese speakers as a distinctive if not unique phenomenon in the developed world) – or, more commonly, to frustrated exhaustion and beyond.
The economy is said to be improving. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe just won a crushing electoral victory on the strength of the real or supposed successes to date of economic reform measures dubbed “Abenomics.” In a skeptical vein, Josei Seven (Dec 25 – Jan 1) assigned a reporter to get hired by a “black kigyo” and see how the other half lives. Not too well, is the verdict.
The reporter, a woman in her 30s, quickly lands a job with “a leading chain restaurant” specializing in inexpensive gyudon (beef on rice served in a bowl). It’s part-time work, 1,120 yen an hour plus transportation. Nearly 40% of Japan’s wage-earners now work on a part-time basis, with few benefits or bonuses and little protection against instant dismissal.
The undercover reporter undergoes three days of training, four hours a day, mostly lectures and study of the company manual, no hands-on experience. It’s not much preparation for what lies ahead. (Some fellow trainees quit immediately on overhearing a customer berate a new waitress for making a beginner’s mistake.)
Her hours are 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., with a one-hour break. The noon rush turns the place into “a war zone” – orders shouted, plates clattering, staff rushing madly about, too busy to guide the novice, who must tough it out on her own. She’s responsible for 10 seats at the counter; one leaves, another comes; there’s no time to catch your breath, no time (it almost goes without saying) for a toilet break. Well, fine, a restaurant is busy at lunch hour, once it’s over, things will calm down a bit – right? Wrong, for then there’s cleaning up to do, and preparations to make for the next inrush.
“Not finished that yet?” her exasperated supervisor shout at her.
"I only have one body!” she retorts.
The shift ends. Home at last? Not at all. There’s still a daily report to write (number of hours, number of customers); then at the last minute a customer wanders in who must be served by whoever’s handy, which happens to be her. This is known in "black kigyo" circles as “service overtime” -- “service” meaning unpaid.
She stuck it out three days and quit on the fourth, surprised at how little surprised her manager was by her hasty departure. “He must be used to it,” she concludes wryly.
“Black” working conditions are by no means confined to the food industry, Josei Seven finds. Every sector seems to have its share of "black kigyo." The magazine speaks to a 25-year-old clothing boutique employee. She works part-time for now, having been promised full-time status later. On the surface, the working conditions seem fine – she even gets to draw up her own work schedule. The trouble is, the manager pays no attention to the schedule she submits and simply assigns her to meet his needs. Soon she was working longer and longer shifts with only two or three days off a month, serving customers by day, cleaning up after closing. Again, the overtime is “service.” At one point she came down with a fever and asked for a day off. Nothing doing!
She’s still there, still waiting for full-time status, but confesses, “I’ve just about reaching my limit.”© Japan Today