Staff writer For a 32-year-old company employee in Tokyo’s Edogawa Ward, the past two years have been a nightmare. And still, he does not know how to end it. Ever since he rejected his employer’s request two years ago to voluntarily quit, he has been constantly harassed by bosses and colleagues. “The company has assigned me to the most labor-intensive section in a car repair factory and has changed my assignments so frequently, I have no time to get accustomed to any of them,” he said. While persistently urging him to quit, the company has instructed other workers to ostracize him, he claimed. “Nobody talks to me at work, and I feel I could collapse any moment,” said the man, who did not want himself or his company identified. “But considering today’s severe employment situation, I cannot afford to quit.” With many Japanese companies embarking on restructuring programs, his plight is not isolated. Hirobumi Yamaguchi, permanent executive of the Tokyo Local Council of Trade Unions, a Tokyo-based union not directly connected with companies, said it is receiving an increasing number of complaints from people being bullied into resigning. “In their desperate efforts to cut costs, companies are employing bullying tactics to force employees to voluntarily resign,” he said. “Firing employees costs money in the form of compensation, but it is quite a different case when the resignation is voluntary,” he explained. Yamaguchi cited the current severe employment situation as another factor behind rampant harassment tactics. Given the dim prospect of finding a new job, simply offering extra severance pay and other incentives is usually not good enough to persuade the desired amount of employees to leave, he said. Kiyotsugu Shitara, general secretary of the Tokyo Managers’ Union, a Tokyo-based union for individual corporate managers and workers, recalls one example of such corporate harassment. “A company set up a training center in the countryside for middle-echelon managers. There the managers were forced to go through a program of cleaning the training facility and nearby streets as well as going into nearby mountains to engage in logging every day, sometimes in the rain,” he said. In 1999, the union received 645 complaints over issues such as layoffs, demotions and nonpayment of wages. Of these, 108 cases involved bullying or sexual harassment, a union report says. Shitara said harassment cases targeting specific individuals peaked in 1997, but it does not mean things are getting better. On the contrary, he said, now that companies are moving on to lay off tens, hundreds and sometimes thousands of employees at once, they are not even taking the trouble of pressuring them into quitting. The experience of Noriji Miwa, 52, who was dismissed from a Yamanashi-based electric parts manufacturer last June, is a prime example. The company fired Miwa and 17 other employees after they rejected the company’s request to tender their resignations. There was no harassment. The company simply told them not to come to the office, Miwa recalled. He was told 1 1/2 months later that he had been fired. “In handing me the dismissal notice, my boss explained that such personnel-slashing is common among competitors,” Miwa said. A problem lies in the current Labor Standards Law, under which employers are effectively free to dismiss workers, argued Yamaguchi of the council of trade unions. Previous court rulings required companies to have “sufficient reason” or to follow due procedure in firing employees. The law, however, stipulates no mandatory conditions or procedures for dismissing personnel, except for requiring employers to make dismissal notification 30 days or more in advance, Yamaguchi said. Shitara also blamed today’s blind public acceptance of corporate restructuring, noting that harsh public opinion previously prevented companies from carrying out drastic restructuring. “People seem to believe that restructuring, a common practice among American firms, is the ultimate method to revive the economy. And companies slashing their workforces tend to enjoy a surge in their share prices, further accelerating layoffs,” he said. Citing the failure of Nissan Motor Co.’s employees’ union to object when the company announced a plan to slash 21,000 jobs in October, Shitara also criticized unions’ feeble efforts in resisting restructuring, another factor allowing the surge in layoffs. The biggest problem, however, is the lack of recognition by both employers and employees that they are now standing at a drastic turning point in the country’s labor-management relations. “Japanese employer-employee relations have long been based on mutual trust, a family-like relationship. But now, the relationship is shifting to a contract-based one,” Shitara said. “Neither Japanese employers nor employees seem to fully understand the nature of their new relationship.” In promoting restructuring, employers are now applying a contract-based “dry relationship,” yet they still tend to demand a “wet relationship” from their employees in the form of loyalty and dedication, he said. “The relationship between employers and employees should be either dry or wet, and it is unfair for companies to demand both from the workers,” Shitara said. At the same time, he said, employees must recognize their changing relationship with companies and brush up their skills to improve their marketability.
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