The 22-year-old university student was in his fifth day working part time at a Sukiya beef bowl outlet in Tokyo when his boss suddenly told him to run the shop from midnight to 9 a.m. all by himself.
“I had no choice but to obey,” said the student, who did not want his name published.
“I suddenly had to make beef bowls without being given any training or instructions,” the Hyogo Prefecture native said.
He said he checked the menu and tried to make the dishes look like those in the photos.
“I put seaweed on top, just as it was in the photo. I didn’t know which sauce to use, so I chose any sauce that was there in the kitchen,” he said.
The man said he was pressured into working shifts he didn’t desire and, as the “person in charge,” had to deal with demanding customers because no full-time regular employees were present.
His case is just the tip of the iceberg for student part-timers who are hired by employers engaged in illegal or oppressive work practices.
This kind of employment, dubbed “burakku arubaito” (black part-time job), a spinoff from “burakku kigyo” (black company) — terms often used to describe firms that flout labor laws — include employers not paying overtime or extra pay for shifts after midnight, making employees buy goods if they fail to fulfill a sales quota, prohibiting workers from taking breaks and even refusing to let them quit.
The term burakku arubaito was coined by Hirokazu Ouchi, a professor at Chukyo University in Nagoya and a member of a project group set up last year by professors, lawyers and leaders of nonprofit organizations to combat the harsh conditions student part-timers often work under.
In November, the group released the results of a questionnaire conducted on 2,000 students.
Around 70 percent of the respondents said they felt they were victims of unfair treatment, including not being given written contracts from their employers.
While 34 percent said they were forced to work undesirable shifts, nearly 25 percent said their employers changed their shifts against their will.
But even if employers engage in unlawful work practices, it’s hard for students to quit their jobs, because such companies rely heavily on irregular employment and the students themselves are under tough financial strains because of the prolonged economic slump, the project group said.
Manabu Sato, head of the Tokyo-based Burakku Arubaito Union, which supports part-time workers, pointed out that students used to take part-time jobs just to earn pocket money, but nowadays many have to work to cover their tuition and living expenses.
They can’t rely on student loans, which are interest-bearing and burdensome to pay back after graduation, he said.
Mitsuko Uenishi, a professor at Hosei University who worked with Ouchi in the project group, stresses that the biggest problem is that students have difficulty balancing part-time work with their studies.
“A lot of students who work part time say they don’t have the time to write reports for courses at university, are too tired or sleepy to concentrate in class, and have to skip all other activities, such as going to the movies with friends and even attending job-hunting seminars,” Uenishi said.
“Adults tend to just think ‘why not just take a day off, or just quit the job?’ But it’s not that easy for them, as they are already committed to the job,” she added.
Uenishi said students today are “controlled psychologically by the firms, and thus in order to stay employed, they can’t say ‘no’ to them.” It is essential for student part-timers to start off on the right foot, she said.
“It’s important for students to confirm the job conditions right at the beginning, and for the universities to give them an orientation upon entering university on what they should expect from part-time jobs, if possible,” she said.
Uenishi stressed that parents should also pay more attention to what kind of part-time jobs their children are engaged in, because they need to know that the situation is totally different from when they were students.
As for the Sukiya part-timer, he said that although he thought managing the total operation — taking orders, cooking and serving them, cleaning up the shop and closing the cash register at the end of the day — all on his own wasn’t normal, he felt he couldn’t refuse and didn’t consult anyone, thinking instead he should deal with the problem on his own.
Then he read about the union for part-time workers in a magazine and sought a consultation.
He said he learned from the union that he was protected by the Labor Standards Act, so he could speak out against his employer if he was treated unlawfully, and that if he needed help the union could even engage in collective bargaining on his behalf.
He also said he was advised to write down the details of his working conditions, such as how many hours he worked on his own, so that his notes could serve as evidence if he decides to take action.
New student unions have been established, first in Tokyo, then in Hokkaido and most recently in Osaka.
Uenishi said it is important for students to exchange information about their job situations and raise their voices.
“If the students are aware of the issue, and actively exchange information among themselves, such as letting each other know which firm is good or bad, that might become a trigger to change how some firms operate,” she said.
Such moves led Sukiya to set up an independent panel to improve its working conditions. It recommended that the chain stop one-person, all-night operations, which the company has been following since October, she noted.