Club hostesses unionize to fight gray-area abuses

by Minoru Matsutani

Their sexy outfits and glossy makeup make it easy for “kyabajo” cabaret hostesses to entice flush male patrons into splurging fortunes on drinks.

Their flashy lifestyle is the fodder for magazines looking to tickle teenagers’ curiosity. Surveys show hostessing ranks in the top-10 jobs high school girls aspire to.

But hostesses and their former ranks want young girls to realize there is no such thing as an easy meal ticket. On Dec. 22, former hostess Rin Sakurai established the Kyabakura (cabaret club) Union in an effort to improve the treatment of hostesses, who can face abuses ranging from harassment to unpaid wages to unlawful firing in an industry that faces little scrutiny.

The union’s first 10 members say they have been subjected to such mistreatment.

“Young girls fancy the hostess job because they think it’s easy money. I want them to know that’s an illusion,” Sakurai, who is in her 20s, told The Japan Times.

So-called cabaret clubs are usually exclusive bars where young hostesses ply their well-off male patrons with exorbitantly priced drinks and provide easy conversation, without having to also provide sexual services. High-end liquor or champagne such as Dom Perignon costs hundreds of thousands of yen.

The Kyabakura Union could be ground-breaking for the hostess industry because it can serve as a vehicle for those who have suffered in the workplace but gave up trying to correct the abuses. United, they can take legal action.

Also, the Labor Standard Bureau may feel compelled to take the complaints of unionized hostesses more seriously.

A typical kyabajo is paid about ¥4,000 an hour plus a commission based on how many drinks she sells. Magazines and other media often feature hostesses who rake in ¥500,000 to more than ¥1 million a month, comparing this with the ¥200,000 often earned by first-year salaried office workers with a college degree.

But the night clubs exact high fines for tardiness, absence or failure to meet drink sales targets.

The Deers club in Nerima Ward, Tokyo, where Sakurai says she suffered sexual harassment and had wages illegally withheld, not only docks a hostess a day’s pay for an unauthorized absence but also charges eight hours worth of salary. It slaps a “fine” amounting to six hours in wages if a hostess calls in on the day of being absent to say she will not be able to come in, even if she later provides a certificate from a doctor proving she is sick, Sakurai said.

In a typical club with 30 hostesses, one or two may make ¥800,000 or more a month, others ¥300,000 to ¥400,000 and around five “underperformers” ¥200,000 or less, Sakurai said, adding she cannot generalize about wages because she has limited knowledge about what goes on at other clubs.

Sakurai said she has never seen a contract stipulating rules regarding fines and doubts that any exist. But she and Yu Negoro, an official of the Freeter Union, to which the Kyabakura Union belongs, believe such abuses are common.

“All the clubs fine hostesses for not soliciting enough customers during sales campaigns. A manager may levy a ¥20,000 fine one day and ¥30,000 the next. Basically, there are no written rules. The managers make them up,” Sakurai said.

She and Negoro alleged that in some cases hostesses are paid less than ¥100,000. Sometimes their fines even exceed their wages.

Another industry custom is the withholding of wages for a hostess’s last month, the two said, adding that in some cases hostesses pay fines and don’t get their final wages.

Both actions would violate the Labor Standard Law, whose Article 91 stipulates cutting a salary as a punishment must not exceed a half day’s pay, and a total amount that can be cut during a payment period, typically a month, must not exceed 10 percent.

Article 15 requires employers to clarify working conditions, wages and hours when they and employees sign a labor contract.

Tomotsune Omura, an official at the Tokyo Labor Standards Bureau, said employers of hostesses and other people engaged in “night jobs” are subject to the Labor Standard Law because there is an employer-employee relationship. The law’s Article 91 implies employers must detail employee working conditions in writing, he said.

Sakurai and Negoro, who is also a former hostess, said they have consulted with local labor standard offices on behalf of Sakurai and other abused hostesses but have been refused help. The two hope that by being unionized, labor-related authorities will start to take them seriously.

“Hostesses give up easily because they think that’s how the kyabakura industry works. We formed the union because we don’t want them to give up,” Sakurai said.

Men working in the industry, on the other hand, feel there is nothing wrong with the way things work.

“We pay them (kyabajo) ¥4,000 an hour. How can we pay that high a salary?” said a male street tout trying to steer men into a club in the Kabukicho red light district in Shinjuku Ward, Tokyo. Hostesses as a rule don’t venture outside to solicit customers. “Unlike women who are office workers, kyabajo lack social common sense, like not being late for or skipping a job. We cannot afford to be nice to such girls or those who cannot make money for us.”

Hostesses who can’t keep the male gravy train running also are subject to “power harassment” by their superiors, Sakurai said.

“Managers and male employees harass us verbally, going after our self-esteem. They say things like, ‘You cannot do any other jobs,’ ” Sakurai said.

The harassment has become more severe since the economy started slumping in fall 2008 and hasn’t let up, she said. Clubs started imposing impossible sales targets so they can fire underachievers at will, she said.

Sakurai worked as a hostess for six years and at Deers for half a year until March. When she told her manager she wanted to quit, he began sexually harassing her and did not pay her for the last half month, she said.

She went to the labor standards office in Nerima, where officials there told her to forget about the unpaid wages and claimed they could not do anything about the alleged sexual harassment, she said. “They told me, ‘You should give up’ and ‘the kyabakura industry is like that. We cannot help you.’ “

She then approached several unions, only to be turned away. The only union willing to help her was the Freeter (part-time worker) Union, which accepts anybody, including free-lancers and the unemployed.