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'Black companies' getting worse

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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

©2021 GPlusMedia Inc.

46 Comments
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Some fellow trainees quit immediately on overhearing a customer berate a new waitress for making a beginner’s mistake.

Restaurant work is tough worldwide, and poorly compensated unless you earn tips.

One thing that makes it even worse in Japan is the extensive uncompensated 'service' overtime (which is illegal, but the labor authorities do little to address the issue). Another is the abundance of power-tripping customers who act like petty tyrants. I've seen it time and again — grunts to indicate yes/no, demands with never a 'please' or 'thank you,' and over-the-top berating of the staff for minor mistakes.

16 ( +18 / -3 )

Another is the abundance of power-tripping customers who act like petty tyrants. I've seen it time and again — grunts to indicate yes/no, demands with never a 'please' or 'thank you,' and over-the-top berating of the staff for minor mistakes.

Yep, see this all the time too. A couple of days ago in a certain chain kissaten (you definitely know the one) I saw an elderly woman call a waiter over and berate him because she didn't like the way the tea bags had been placed in her tea pot. He apologized repeatedly, brought her a fresh pot and some cookies to appease her, then called a young lady out of the kitchen and berated her in front of everybody. And then the manager of the shop came out and had a go at both of them! I couldn't really enjoy my coffee after watching that spectacle. (Also, the disgusting old bag's slurps of satisfaction were really distracting.)

16 ( +20 / -4 )

As I've told my Japanese friends before, it's never OK to be asked to work for free. If they need you stay back late to do some cleaning, that's OK. But they MUST PAY you for doing so.

if my manager, after me working me to the bone on my shift, said to stay behind and clean up without pay, I'd walk out the door. If he told me the next day I'd been sacked, well, that's fine with me. I'd go somewhere else, this is literally slave labour and shouldn't be tolerated in a developed, democratic Country.

17 ( +20 / -4 )

Sorry for the bad English, just woke up...

0 ( +3 / -3 )

1,120 yen an hour + transpo is way above some who has to deal with 800 or even 900 with no transpo at all. Inconsiderate and considerate customers are everywhere not only in Japan. I've worked in restaurant and hotels and with more than 5 yrs experience in both, I'm lucky to meet only one old man who showed me his rice bowl with one short hair on it. I happened to serve his rice but my hair is quite long then and he didn't know I can understand Nihonggo and boasted of his naughtiness to the man next to him. People like him aren't Japan monopoly. But the good people whom I met along the way far outnumber his likes .

10 ( +11 / -1 )

These black companies should be penalized heavily for causing physical and mental stress/damage. Also, overtime ought to be paid period.

At my company you have to work 1 hour extra first (unpaid) and then after that hour all the overtime will be returned into an equal amount of free time.

1 ( +4 / -3 )

The description of the job in this article didn't sound particularly bad to me. I've worked in kitchens before - that's how it works. Prepare for the rush, deal with the rush, clean up after the rush, prepare for the next rush. Her hours weren't particularly long, the pay isn't particularly bad, and writing reports is normal. The only objectionable thing I can see in there is having to deal with customers after her shift is technically done.

It seems to me they could have found a better example than this for the article.

12 ( +16 / -4 )

At one point she came down with a fever and asked for a day off. Nothing doing!

... and now we know the real source of Japan's food safety problems. It isn't dodgy chicken from China, it is the fact that Japanese companies make sick employees come in to handle your food.

Next time you see a sick employee ask to see the manager and tell them that it is unacceptable to have a sick employee in the office, and that it isn't the employee's fault, it is the MANAGER's fault for letting it happen.

15 ( +17 / -2 )

I've always thought the "black" in "black kigyo" was for flying under the radar of and ignoring labor regulations.

I agree the example above sounds like restaurant work all over the world.

I also agree with Sensato about the unpleasantness with dealing with power-tripping customers here in Japan.

The grunting, ordering without a "please" or a "thank you" and haughty attitude is very unappetizing to see. (See what I did there?)

-1 ( +4 / -5 )

Poor working conditions and low pay for unskilled work are normal throughout the world. If one wants good working conditions, and good pay, one must learn a skill. Improving working conditions for low-skilled workers is a good thing, there are minimum standards which should be met. But low-skilled work should not pay well enough that it discourages people from learning higher level skills, or improving their education.

One reason I began working for myself is that I didn't want to be told what to do, how to do it, when to do it, and get paid whatever my company wanted to pay me. Now I do what I want to do, how and when I want to do it, and my pay is only limited by how hard I want to work. For those who work smart and work hard, there is no limit, especially if they work for themselves.

-7 ( +8 / -15 )

ConnorH93

if my manager, after me working me to the bone on my shift, said to stay behind and clean up without pay, I'd walk out the door. If he told me the next day I'd been sacked, well, that's fine with me. I'd go somewhere else, this is literally slave labour and shouldn't be tolerated in a developed, democratic Country.

Then you would find yourself changing jobs daily. The people CAN'T just leave and get another job as they NEED money to exchange for goods and services. If a person is working at a restaurant and is asked to do service overtime, they can quit. Then they can move to a convenience store and be asked to work service overtime and quit. If the majority of companies are making employees work overtime without pay, then the employees have no place to go if they do quit.

1 ( +3 / -2 )

low-skilled work should not pay well enough that it discourages people from learning higher level skills, or improving their education.

Why not? The fact is that if everyone was educated and skilled, there would be no one left to do the unskilled labor. Too many chefs, not enough cooks. There is no reason to require that unskilled labor should not be paid well. There are only market forces at play - most places employing unskilled labourers cannot afford to pay their staff highly. And this is fair, same as there should be no requirement that business not pay their staff highly, there should also be no requirement that business pay their staff highly.

But to declare that business should not pay their staff highly, even if they can afford to do so, is ridiculous.

8 ( +9 / -1 )

Disgraceful behavior by a company.

4 ( +5 / -1 )

It's never so simple, @ConnorH93.

Team effort is a really strong motivator in Japan. If you going home meant others having to do the work for you, would you go home? How would you feel if your coworker died of exhaustion while you chilled at home? If only you had stayed half an hour longer...

Sense of hierarchy and unwillingness to stand out prevent employees to resist oppression as a group. Japanese harmonious society is a beautiful thing, but so often, so easily abused by those in power.

-1 ( +8 / -9 )

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.

It's the truth. May be even more...

2 ( +3 / -1 )

Sorry for the bad English, just woke up... thats totally unaccceeppttible there are grammar police everywhere on JT

-3 ( +4 / -7 )

The theme here is workers are disposable items.

The core issue is the belief that you leave your personhood at the door. Since you have relinquished your humanity treating the employee as paper waste is an unsurprising outcome.

Worst still, petty dictators and socio-paths thrive in these environments. The only answer is to shine a light into the festering puss of these work practices, naming names and documenting what amounts to physical and psychological abuse.

Until patrons know the cost in human humiliation and abuse these “black kigyo”, they will continue to spend their money to perpetuate a hellish employment environment.

Silence is acquiescence and guarantees these corrupt and criminal practices will continue unchanged. Very Japanese.

12 ( +12 / -0 )

What about certain eikaiwa schools not even paying transportation? Or overtime? Or holiday pay? Or even sick pay?

10 ( +12 / -2 )

Nearly 40% of Japan’s wage-earners now work on a part-time basis

Yes, that's true, but the figure for women is over 60%. Considering over 90% of women in Japan get married, this is not such a shocking figure. If we look at men, the figures are highest for the 15 to 24 group, naturally. The percentage of "hi-seishain" for 2013 was 36%. The number has only changed 2% in the last 5 years.

2 ( +3 / -1 )

When I was in high school I did pretty much the same sort of work for about half the pay, though in those dinosaur times and as a kid whose parents paid for everything important the money went further. Service work is hard, that's just how it is. That's why I generally don't make a fuss about minor slip-ups at restaurants, complain about major ones directly to the manager and not the employee (it being the manager's job to manage their employees after all), and make a point of praising staff when they exceed my expectations.

The unpaid overtime thing though, that's unacceptable. I would have never been asked to do it because where I come from, the law has teeth that if my employer asked me to, I could report them and they would face serious consequences. If the employees can't get the job done in the time assigned to them, then their manager is a failure- either they haven't adequately prepared their employees to do their jobs or they've incorrectly assessed how long it takes to do their job. The need to write lengthy reports also strikes me as odd. That should all be information that the manager takes automatically or with minimal effort. I never had to write down when I arrived and left the restaurant- I just punched a code into a spare cash register when I arrived and left. Likewise, the employees who need to record how many customers they served should have something like a clicker and then a chart- it should at most take 10 seconds. Again, if employees can't get this information put together easily then the management has failed them.

I sometimes wonder how much innovation would suddenly flourish if people stopped letting employers get away with punishing employees for their own management failures.

9 ( +10 / -1 )

If the employees can't get the job done in the time assigned to them, then their manager is a failure- either they haven't adequately prepared their employees to do their jobs or they've incorrectly assessed how long it takes to do their job.

Katsu - hear hear. It wearies me when I hear so many people here bragging about how it always takes them 14 hours to do a day's work. Managers seem to view inadequate time management as some kind of badge of honour, rather than as the gross inefficiency and waste it really is.

If you start an office job at 9 and always work until midnight, you are doing your job wrong.

10 ( +12 / -2 )

This stories ties into the other story on JT about the company banning couples for Christmas Eve due to the fact (they said) that they were concerned about their employees having to see these couples together and not be able to enjoy themselves since they have to work.

I pointed out in a response to that article that it would be just as easy for resturant to close that evening also, and looking at what type of place it was, not really a place to take a date to (unless you are on a budget).

I have heard stories of how companies like the ones mentioned in this story just work their people to death. If they wanted to know how many customers a particular person served, it would very easy account for that by issuing each server a number and have it encoded on the sales receipt, so that a count can be made at the end of each day.

Such a simple solution as that and many others also goes hand in hand with another article posted on JT today about the Sony hacking scandal, where it was stated in the article that "a veteran freelance tech journalist and consultant based in Tokyo, said the tendency stems from reporters and editors who often don’t have a deep understanding of technology. And neither do their aging readers."

I guess that applies to company managers as well. I think that sentiment goes along with some of these companies who don't fully utilize the tools that they have available with their equipment.

As far as the customers berating the employees, I guess it is that old "goes around comes around" mentality I have seen a lot here in Japan. If someone gets belitled at their work, I have seen them tend to pass it on down to customer service people that they have to deal with. Not a good way to do business, but I have seen it quite often here.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

@Tessa:

I saw an elderly woman call a waiter over and berate him because she didn't like the way the tea bags had been placed in her tea pot.

That's so reminiscent of the Korea airline nut incident.

9 ( +9 / -0 )

The primary reason why "Black Kigyo" companies continue unabated is because since the term first made a splash in Japanese media 2~3 years ago, the Ministry of Labor had devoted equal parts of diddly and squat to addressing the pervasive and corrosive problem.

Knowing that there are no real consequences, legal or otherwise, for perpetuating a wholly unethical and exploitative workplace, these companies soldier on, also knowing full well that the alleged benefits of Abenomics most certainly have not trickled down to the core demographic that usually applies for these types of part-time positions, i.e., no matter how bad these companies get, there will always be a steady stream of fresh applicants for the grinder.

The only place where improvements have occurred, particularly with regard to the abomination that is "service zangyo," is the public sector, where government employees are unionized enough to raise a major stink if their asshat of a bucho insists on unpaid overtime for no better reason than because he had to endure the same when he was moving up the ranks. No so in the private sector world of part-time employment. Union protection? Heh.

I have no doubt Shinzo Abe, Amaterasu bless his little patriotic heart, would insist that stronger regulation of these businesses that underpay and underappreciate a full 40% of the Japanese workforce would be detrimental to the, ahem, “economic recovery,” (coff! coff!) and that workers should bite the bullet a little longer, continuing to take one for Team Japan. Meanwhile the rich get richer in Japan, while the middle class withers up and falls off the vine to join the growing ranks of the "less fortunate" littering the landscape.

But hey, as long as the TOPIX keeps rising, right?

12 ( +14 / -2 )

The economy is said to be improving.

Yeah, yeah, it just went into recession. But apart from that, everything is going well.

5 ( +7 / -2 )

"The fact is that if everyone was educated and skilled, there would be no one left to do the unskilled labor. Too many chefs, not enough cooks" is no longer relevant to the big picture today. I 'hear' the world (at least in the US) is moving in a technology based direction. I see that it's moving more towards service sector, at least for the next couple of years.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Everyone wants service and goods as cheap as possible and no one wants to pay high prices, there fore workers get taken advantage of.

If you do not like the cheap pay get another job, or up skill, retrain, re educate, imagine if the guy at mcdonalds flippin burgers got paid the salary of an accountant or business manager. You wouldn't want to pay the price of the mac burger then would you.

Cheap labour is part of life everywhere, working over time for free is a Japanese thing and should be nipped in the bud.

-14 ( +1 / -15 )

If you do not like the cheap pay get another job, or up skill, retrain, re educate, imagine if the guy at mcdonalds flippin burgers got paid the salary of an accountant or business manager.

Imagine if the guy at McDonald's didn't get crapped on by the company that employs him.

7 ( +7 / -0 )

This article would have been more interesting as a 'why we should treat staff with respect' story.

Unpaid overtime is just part of life in Japan, but I look forward to reading one day about employees saying 'enough'

6 ( +6 / -0 )

this is among the core economic issues that could also help turn things around if the government could recognize the reality of it and comes in more aggressively with legal penalties against companies doing such illegal/inhumane actions against their own employees. however, maybe that must be another part of the "third arrow" which might be hidden somewhere for the time being.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

A majority of Japanese companies are at it, even a certain private school near Sangenjaya, I wonder what time they let the teachers home, how much free overtime they are made to do with inane busy work... Yet, if they stood for themselves? Sacked. They aren't allowed to unionize. So? Get out of these companies while you can, they'll take you til you're a dry husk then simply leave you like dust to blow away in the wind. It is YOUR life. LIVE IT!

5 ( +6 / -1 )

And they'll probably continue to get worse.... the Govt... other than spending money on Stimulus packages to support their crony friends... spends little money on oversight.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

Abe better hurry up with the war, or the revolution will come first.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

"“Black” working conditions are by no means confined to the food industry"

What passes as "the sins of a few" for so many here, and so many who accept the degradation of the employee as an acceptable consequence of "productivity" or profitability or any excuse that allows a status quo of harming others for profit is the core of the distress and, worst still, the acceptance of harming others for the wealth of a few.

No need to over dramatize these failings of character, they have been the bane and shield of wealth since ancient times. That, in its self, is the justification for the perpetuation of cruelty, we simply cannot live without it.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

Post them, shame them, boycott them and their products or services... I am ready to do it!

2 ( +2 / -0 )

A Japanese co-worker often points out, "This is a black company, that is a black company." And it isn't always a restaurant. It could be a major electrical sales company, a big trading company, a school, an English language school, and on and on. So the color black is spread quite thick over a wide-ranging realm of companies.

And does Abe-san care? Heck no. The election is over and he has other fish to fry ... or something like that ...

7 ( +7 / -0 )

Abe better hurry up with the war, or the revolution will come first.

No freakin' kidding. It almost seems as though war with a neighbor to boost the economy is Abe's yet unspoken "Fourth Arrow" and he's just waiting for the right time to spring it on the electorate (like when he finally takes a stab at ramming through a renunciation of Article 9 in spite of majority opposition).

StormR,

If you do not like the cheap pay get another job, or up skill, retrain, re educate, imagine if the guy at mcdonalds flippin burgers got paid the salary of an accountant or business manager.

The issue isn't about low pay. It's about abusing employees under an advertised compensation scheme that in no way reflects the actual work being asked of the employee. This issue permeates Japanese society from the lowly burger flipper all the way up to the level of accountants and business managers, spilling over into other so-called professional disciplines and industires, from lawyers to engineers to tradesmen. It’s rife in Japan and is more characteristic of a society amidst the grime of the Industrial Revolution than a nation at the forefront of the Information Age.

It's not something that can be addressed, much less fixed, by that tired conservative "by your own bootstraps" pap.

8 ( +8 / -0 )

TBH, I don't really see the problem with that Gyudon chain example..? Restaurants are always busy at certain times, that's the same anywhere in the world. Getting over 1000 yen an hour plus transportation also seems quite a bit higher than the minimum wage too..

0 ( +1 / -1 )

Many do blak kigyo and don't even realized they should not forego their paid leave and do excessive over time. It has become learned for them to do far more than the should.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

@LFRAAgain

The primary reason why "Black Kigyo" companies continue unabated is because since the term first made a splash in Japanese media 2~3 years ago, the Ministry of Labor had devoted equal parts of diddly and squat to addressing the pervasive and corrosive problem. Knowing that there are no real consequences, legal or otherwise, for perpetuating a wholly unethical and exploitative workplace, these companies soldier on, also knowing full well that the alleged benefits of Abenomics most certainly have not trickled down to the core demographic that usually applies for these types of part-time positions, i.e., no matter how bad these companies get, there will always be a steady stream of fresh applicants for the grinder. The only place where improvements have occurred, particularly with regard to the abomination that is "service zangyo," is the public sector, where government employees are unionized enough to raise a major stink if their asshat of a bucho insists on unpaid overtime for no better reason than because he had to endure the same when he was moving up the ranks. No so in the private sector world of part-time employment. Union protection? Heh. I have no doubt Shinzo Abe, Amaterasu bless his little patriotic heart, would insist that stronger regulation of these businesses that underpay and underappreciate a full 40% of the Japanese workforce would be detrimental to the, ahem, “economic recovery,” (coff! coff!) and that workers should bite the bullet a little longer, continuing to take one for Team Japan. Meanwhile the rich get richer in Japan, while the middle class withers up and falls off the vine to join the growing ranks of the "less fortunate" littering the landscape. But hey, as long as the TOPIX keeps rising, right?

One of the best posts I've read on here all year. I take my hat off to you!

3 ( +3 / -0 )

Oh yes, the saabisu!

I don't eat in places like Yoshinoya and the likes. Partly, because I don't really care for the food and partly because I can't stand to be surrounded by rude, uneducated trongs of oyaji, shoving their food down and displaying the worst kind of manners. I always observe how Japanese treat people they perceive to be "below" them, and this is one of the reasons my respect for these people has reached bottom levels. It is very telling of a place how people treat those they can't benefit from. Service staff in Japan is treated like they are some kind of burakumin and that sucks balls.

The so-called "service" overtime exists because it can. People need their jobs, I suppose, and won't speak up against ridiculous ideas. I have, from the very beginning, taken the approach of leaving exactly on time. Many of my co-workers hhang around, punch out and does who-knows-what for hours. Unpaid.

4 ( +5 / -1 )

Another problem is that hard workers are soon moved to 'management' level where they no longer get overtime payments. But still treat their workers as an equal.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

This is not an example of a "black company" that's always how restaurants are. I worked at 3 different ones in the US in my student days and it was always like that. Go to the restroom before the rush starts!

Using this as an example distracts from the real black companies that comply with labor laws only on paper with a totally different reality behind the scenes, and the whole inefficient business methods that are the mutant offspring of imported Western business styles and traditional nemawashi, hierarchy, nomu-nication etc.

There is just not a good grasp of "human rights" and the existence of "individuals" here, that is the root of the problem.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

I am not making excuses for the poor treatment of workers in Japan, but how many of these people read their employment contract before taking the job? How many don't even know if they HAVE a contract? Read it, ask questions, ask them to change any clause you don't like or don't take the job

0 ( +0 / -0 )

The economy is said to be improving.

Yeah, yeah, it just went into recession. But apart from that, everything is going well.

Just saw the head of Morgan Stanley on Squawk Box this week and he said they are projecting 20% growth in Japanese equities. Goldman Sachs is predicting 2050 on the TOPIX and it's only at 1427 right now. ROE is expected to be 10%+ for the first time in history, so while some of the labor conditions may be substandard, now is the time to get wealthy investing in Japan. Save your money and invest wisely.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

LFRAgain, hat's off.

Doing my eikaiwa stint two decades ago, I interviewed a fellow who mentioned that he worked as a beekeeper for a large honey producer in Kumamoto. Intrigued, I asked him to describe his job. "It is hot, the work is strenuous and monotonous, I frequently have to work long hours of unpaid overtime - and I am stung by bees numerous times every day," he answered; now alarmed, I asked why he didn't quit, and he gaped at me as the clueless gaijin newbie that I was.

While not entirely a fraud (there are exceptions), Japanese society is premised on the idea that, if you do as told and follow the rules, you will be rewarded with a moderately affluent life; this is instilled from kindergarten, and the slightest suggestion to this gent that he seek better pasture rather than follow the social flow was enough to short-circuit his concept of reality.

I taught my son that he should grasp the reasoning (if any) behind rules and that, if he still disagreed, he had my encouragement to buck them. Until this way of thinking becomes pervasive in Japan, things will never change.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

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