“Burakku kigyo” (black companies) have lately embedded themselves in the Japanese economy, symptoms of hard times. Their “blackness” lies in three characteristic forms of employee exploitation: long hours, low pay and the “power harassment” of underlings by those above them.
What’s worse than working for a black company? Working for a “zebra company,” says Spa! (March 7).
“Zebra” suggests stripes, black and white, good and bad. Zebra companies, as Spa! portrays them, are of two basic types. Companies of the first type paper over abuses with superficial reforms that actually make matters worse. The second type is comprised of sprawling big-name corporations too complex to be wholly black or white – some of their departments and subsidiaries are the one, others the other. Perhaps troubled corporations like Sharp and Toshiba can be said to form a third type whose members combine features of types one and two. The subject is complicated. Employees, it seems, can be made miserable in a great variety of ways.
A labor ministry poll cited by Spa! weighs the top 10 of them. You’d think low pay and long hours would top the list. What does instead is “workplace human relations,” which trouble 35.2% of respondents and likely include power harassment. “Quality of work” comes second (34.9%); excessive workload third (33%); uncertainty regarding one’s employer’s future prospects fourth (29.1%); promotions and raises fifth (23.2%).
Whatever angst ranks uppermost in a particular employee’s mind, the average workplace is clearly a high-pressure, high-stress environment on which the government’s exhortations to reduce working hours have had little effect. If anything they’ve made matters worse, says labor consultant Shigeyuki Jo: “Work hours may have been cut, but workloads have not been.” So overtime that was once recorded and paid is now unrecorded and unpaid – though unpaid overtime (known euphemistically as “service overtime”) is by no means a new problem. If late-night work is curbed, says Jo, workers are forced to come in early in the morning; or more work gets fobbed off on subsidiaries. “As ‘labor reform’ proceeds,” Jo sums up, “it seems companies become more ‘white’ on the surface and more ‘black’ in fact.”
So it seems to have been at Sharp, the electronics giant that fell into dysfunction and was bought out in 2016 by Taiwan-based Foxconn Group. News report of its struggles were dire, but life within the maelstrom was surprisingly calm, says a former employee in his thirties who speaks to Spa! anonymously. Comfort, in fact, he says, was the poison. Nobody wanted to face reality, which went from bad to worse. His implication is that a certain measure of “blackness” is necessary in hypercompetitive times for sheer survival.
But where lies the line between an acceptable measure and excess? A certain “Mr Yazaki,” 36 years old and employed by “a leading food products maker,” feels himself on the wrong side of it.
It’s the more painful for him because his former boss, the one his current one recently replaced, was such an easygoing fellow, always thoughtful of his subordinates’ welfare. “People in other departments envied me,” says Yazaki. They don’t now. A management shakeup brought in a replacement from outside. Out for his own advancement, the new man pushes his subordinates to meet absurd quotas so he can claim the credit. “Get supermarkets to place our products in their warehouses long enough to photograph them there and include them in our sales report,” Yazaki says he orders them – “never mind if they buy them or not.” What can Yazaki do? He’s a subordinate under orders. He must follow them. It’s black indeed.
And how, one wonders, will the newly minted Premium Friday affect working conditions? Premium Friday – early release from work one Friday a month – is the latest scheme to force employers to ease up on employees and give them a bit of a life outside the workplace. For those who do get out early it’s good news. But how will they spend the free time? Shopping, dining out, traveling? For workers in those industries, suggests Spa!, Premium Friday could well turn into Black Friday.© Japan Today