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No room for subtleties when laying off workers

by Philip Brasor

Thanks to a feature that appeared on the front page of the Dec. 31 issue of the Asahi Shimbun, oidashi beya is the first topical neologism of 2013 if you don’t count “Abenomics.” It’s not clear if the term, which translates as “expulsion room,” was coined by the newspaper, but since then the blogosphere and social networks have picked up on it and the concept it describes, a holding area for full-time workers deemed unnecessary but who won’t quit. These employees are retained but given little or no meaningful work.

Other media had already covered the subject, but none struck a nerve the way the Asahi did, probably because they didn’t use the term “oidashi beya,” which seems to have captured the public’s imagination. The idea of exerting psychological pressure to get employees to leave is not new. In the past, companies passively ostracized redundant workers by moving them “next to the window” (madogiwa-zoku) or figuratively “tapping them on the shoulder” (kata-tataki), but these phrases were utilized in relation to people approaching retirement.

Under the so-called lifetime employment system regular employees received pay raises and promotions as they aged, but there are only so many positions at the top of the pyramid. When Japan was still developing and growth seemed limitless, excess management could be farmed out to subsidiaries or partner firms, but after the bubble burst even these options became fiscally untenable. Older workers were pressured to leave early, and if they didn’t they were shuffled around and given nothing to do until they got the message and quit out of frustration or humiliation.

The difference with oidashi beya is that most of the targeted workers are in their 30s and 40s, members of the “lost generation” who found it difficult to secure good jobs with major corporations during the financial slide of the 1990s. In other words, these were the lucky ones, the graduates who did get those coveted jobs, and so they stubbornly hold on.

The Asahi interviewed a number of them, and while it didn’t print their names it did specify their companies. One woman worked for a subsidiary of Panasonic in Yokohama. In early autumn she was transferred to a special room “with no name on the door” that contained a hundred “old desks with personal computers on them.” Her task was to “assist” other sections on request. When there were no requests she just sat around.

She had been given a choice: voluntarily leave and receive severance pay or accept assignment to this room, called Business Human Resources. She has young children so she decided to stay on, and then was told there was no guarantee she wouldn’t be laid off sometime in the future. According to an internal memo that Asahi got ahold of, at least two Panasonic subsidiaries have adopted this system, which at the time accounted for 449 employees or about 10 percent of all the workers in those two companies. Officially, the section’s purpose is to train employees so that they can “retransfer to other sections,” but the people who work there know that the next step is out the door. Nevertheless, the system allows Panasonic to say that it is not firing anyone or forcing them to quit.

Other companies have oidashi beya. Sony calls its the Career Station Room. NEC’s is the Project Shien (Support) Center. Asahi Seimei established the ambitious sounding Kigyo Kaitaku (Project Development) Team last April, which takes the concept further. Rather than wait around for work, the employees must find their own — at a different company. They are paid to attend seminars on “selling themselves.” One worker says he spends every morning at a PC looking at job-search sites and over the past several months has applied to more than 150 firms with no success.

This sounds like a more responsible approach to the problem, and others companies with similar job-search programs for redundant employees were covered in a recent issue of Asahi’s sister publication Aera. However, when interviewed by the newspaper a representative of Asahi Seimei said that they are training these people for “transfers” in order to “strengthen our relationships with counterpart companies.” The workers, he insists, are under no pressure to resign.

Some online commenters have expressed anger over such indignities being imposed on loyal employees, while others see the article as an anticorporate hatchet job. Both arguments miss the point, as does the piece, whose commiserating tone exacerbates the problem it describes. The lifetime-employment system has been on life support since the early 1990s. For better or worse the government has liberalized hiring practices that undermine the system without actually putting it out of its misery. To many new graduates, full-time regular jobs with “name” companies remain the preferred career track, a conviction that flatters these companies but does them no service as long as they don’t disabuse these graduates of the notion that they are secure for life once they’re hired.

In the face of increased global competition and decreased domestic demand these companies must continually rationalize personnel just to stay in business, or so they claim. Socially minded people bemoan the change in corporate mindset that favors stockholders at the expense of stakeholders, and it’s a complaint worth discussing, but not in the context of a moribund policy like lifetime employment.

Major companies don’t want the public to think they’re heartless, but given their chosen priorities the image seems unavoidable. When he was president of construction equipment maker Komatsu, Masahiro Sakane laid off thousands of regular employees without resorting to euphemism and indirection, and in doing so pulled his company out of the red in a relatively short time, but the media sees him as an exception. The main challenge for his corporate peers is how to break it to existing and future salarymen that employers don’t exist for their benefit, and, in fact, never did.

  • sidewalker

    This article is a sad testament to how much the labour movement and support for it that created the middle class and built the great societies has fallen and how much the neo-liberal doctrine has become normalized. It’s true that capitalism exists on the practice of extracting surplus value from workers, but it should not be a given employees are at the whim and mercy of employers and cannot fight to limit how much surplus is extracted or how easily they can be deemed surplus to requirements and tossed out like spent trash. If you say that employers don’t exist for the benefit of employees, we can also say that the physical, social and environmental resources of a society do not exist for the benefit of a businesses. To use these is a privilege that should be repaid in kind.