On Dec. 15, the operator of Japanese-style pubs Watami Co. reached a settlement with the parents of a former employee who killed herself due to overwork.
In the settlement, Watami admitted that the female employee’s death was caused by excessive work, said Kazunari Tamaki, a lawyer for the woman’s parents.
Mina Mori, 26, committed suicide in June 2008, two months after beginning to work for Watami. She was forced to work long shifts until the early hours and often hung around until the first train of the next morning.
According to court documents, her overtime was found to be in excess of 140 hours a month. She had four days off in a two-month period.
“My body hurts. I feel exhausted,” she wrote in a note in May. “I feel emotionally numb. I can’t move as fast as I want to. Please help me, somebody help me.”
Burakku kigyō (so-called black, or dark, enterprises) are probably the epitome of everything that’s wrong in Japan today. In 2013, it was among the top trending words of the year.
Haruki Konno, head of Posse, a group that helps young people with problems in their working environment, says black enterprises typically hire young employees and then force them to work large amounts of overtime without extra pay. While specifics may vary from company to company, conditions are generally poor and workers are subject to verbal abuse, sexual harassment and bullying.
“Immigrants typically bear the brunt of such treatment,” Konno told me in an interview. “In Japan, young people in particular suffer. Originally the term was popular among college students looking for jobs. It was shorthand for a company that worked its employees into the ground.”
Konno says black enterprises are able to flourish due to existing conditions in the labor market.
In 1985, regular employees accounted for 85 percent of the workforce. These days, the number is roughly 60 percent, a shift in job security caused by the easing of labor dispatch laws.
“Good jobs are hard to find and people are willing to put up with a lot before quitting,” Konno says.
It’s worth noting that black enterprises are not exactly a new phenomenon.
In July 2000, advertising giant Dentsu Inc. admitted it was responsible for the 1991 suicide of a 24-year-old employee who had become depressed due to overwork. Dentsu agreed to pay his family about ¥168 million in damages.
In March 2000, the Supreme Court heard that Ichiro Oshima typically couldn’t leave work before 6 a.m. When Oshima returned home after these shifts, he basically only had time to change his clothes before returning to the office.
Following the ruling, Dentsu vowed to take measures to prevent similar deaths by thoroughly monitoring employees’ working and health conditions. For its staff’s sake, I hope it has.
I’ve worked for a black enterprise myself. We kept two sets of books: a book in which real working hours were recorded and another to show labor inspectors. Those assigned to night-shift duty were tasked with logging the hours of everyone in the division. It was certainly surreal to see that I was in the middle of a three-day vacation, according to the manual, when I was actually in the office at 2 a.m.
In 2013, the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare investigated 5,111 companies that were accused of having atrocious labor conditions. Eighty-two percent of the companies examined were found to be in violation of labor laws and almost half of them — 43.8 percent — expected their employees to work overtime illegally.
According to the Sankei Shimbun, labor minister Yasuhisa Shiozaki in May last year ordered his department to release the names of these enterprises.
So far, not a single one has been named.
One would hope Prime Minister Shinzo Abe recognizes that black enterprises are not good for society or the economy. Low-paid workers who don’t have free time or money to spend on consumer goods also generally don’t have time to get married or have children.
But even if the government fails to act, there’s something the general public can do to keep black enterprises in check — spend money on companies that don’t mistreat their workers.
Backed by the Abe’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party, Watami’s founder, Miki Watanabe, was elected to the Diet in 2013. That same year, Watami failed to break even for the first time since it listed in 1996. People voted with their feet, eating at other establishments.
It could be argued that Watami’s settlement in December is an attempt to address this and improve conditions in the workplace. One can only hope.
Perhaps there is some light at the end of the tunnel after all?
Dark Side of the Rising Sun is a monthly column that takes a behind-the-scenes look at news in Japan.