Unions and grassroots activists must push government harder…

Exploitative enterprises, known as “dark” or “black” companies to the Japanese (burakku kigyō), are considered by many as the hallmark of everything wrong in today’s Japan. RENGO, the Japanese Trade Union Confederation, promises in its current Action Policies document to “play an active role in addressing the issue of karoshi (death from overwork) and so-called black companies (sweatshop-type companies)”.

Burakku kigyō was among the top trending words or phrases of 2013. And RENGO’s survey of working conditions in 2014 found that 25 percent of all respondents believed that they worked for a “sweatshop business”.  Regrettably, only a half of them had approached anyone for help, probably because union engagement in Japan — at least, as measured by the OECD — is low and declining. The effect is particularly noticeable among the young. Despite the fact that more than half of RENGO’s respondents who did not belong to a union thought they were necessary, only seven percent of respondents in their twenties even knew what RENGO was.

After years of stagnation and decline, Japan’s economy is still in poor health. RENGO observes that among companies the trend towards prioritizing short-term profits continues to strengthen, while investment in people has deteriorated. “Black companies have become a social issue,” according to the Confederation. “With the advancement of economic globalization, an increasing number of cases are observed in which corporate restructuring or the actions of multinational enterprises have altered industrial relations.”

For altered read “worsened”. Black companies are now so much a part of “the social misery in Japan”, says the Japan Subculture website, “that they even are incorporated into board games like The Hellish Game of Life.  Between April and September 2016, close to 7,000 Japanese businesses violated labour laws and were ordered by Japan’s Ministry of Health, Welfare and Labour to stop the illegality. Now, for the first time, the government has released a nationwide list of over 300 companies that continue to violate labour laws. Death by overwork is becoming a major problem and the government hopes that corporate naming-and-shaming may help to prevent it.

The list of offending companies, published in early May, includes well known names such as the advertising agency Dentsu, the electronics giant Panasonic, and Japan Post. The commonest complaint is that these companies impose excessive working hours, often involving unpaid — and therefore illegal — overtime, on their workers.  “Public outrage over long working hours,” according to a Reuters press release, “and the suicide of a young worker at Dentsu in 2015, later ruled by the government as karoshi, have pushed Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to make labor (sic) reform a key policy plank.”

But the list is the tip of the iceberg. When the Ministry of Health, Welfare and Labour first thought of monitoring bad employment practices in 2013, it was acting on a surge in reported incidents of abuse, unpaid overtime, excessive hours and constructive dismissal at work in the previous year. Over quarter of a million such incidents had been reported, an increase of 150 percent over a ten year period. When the ministry’s first list of persistent offenders finally appeared this year, it was, in the opinion of unions, labour lawyers and activists, something of a damp squib.

While the government has been forced to act, Prime Minister Abe’s proposed reforms do not go far enough. The list itself will be updated monthly, but not all companies under investigation by the authorities will appear on it, according to an unnamed government official. The ministry will only publicise offenders when it believes that this will help encourage them to comply.

With a growing labour shortage due to Japan’s ageing population, Abe’s government has found itself in a cleft stick. Unions and the majority of the population are demanding reform loudly. They argue that poor treatment of workers has a negative impact on national productivity and growth in the longer term. On the other hand, companies still insist on the freedom to stretch their workers to breaking point in the interests of increasing their own immediate profits. Abe unveiled an action plan in March which will introduce reforms to employment practices, including caps on overtime and improved pay for part-time and contract workers. But the measures will not come into effect until 2019 and, in practice, are likely to be superficial.

Meanwhile, unions and grass roots organizations are taking action. In 2012, a group of academics, journalists and activists created the “Black Corporations Award” to publicise the issue and allow the public to vote for “the most evil corporations of the year.” This has become an annual award, with restaurant chains, retailers and transport companies dominating the ratings. Nominations for the award are based on the following considerations, according to the Tofugu website:

  1. Actual public records on occupational problems such as a long work time, sexual harassment, or abuse of power.
  2. Long intense work hours.
  3. Low pay.
  4. Compliance violations.
  5. Flaws in the system, such as lack of childcare leave or maternity leave.
  6. Hostility to unions.
  7. Discrimination against temporary workers.
  8. Temporary worker dependence.
  9. Unpaid overtime (and lies about paid overtime in the job advertisements).

Perhaps union action and grassroots activity will, at last, begin to have a real impact on the destructive culture of Japan’s “black companies”.

More details

RENGO Action Policies 2016-2017, RENGO, 2017

Trade Union density, OECD, 2017.

Makoto Iwahashi & Jake Adelstein, ‘Japan’s Labor Ministry Names and Shames “Dark Companies” For Labor Abuse‘, Japan Subculture Research Center, Tokyo, 16 May 2017.

Japan Subculture Research Center, ‘The Hellish Game of Life‘.

Minami Funakoshi, ‘Japan Government Names and Shames Black Companies Violating Labor Laws‘, Reuters, 12 May 2017.

Mami Suzuki, ‘How Japanese Black Companies Oppress Workers and Ruin Lives‘, Tofugu, 25 April 2014.











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Gary Herman

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