National / Media | MEDIA MIX

A dark force targets youth at their jobs

by Philip Brasor

Special To The Japan Times

In the ongoing discussion about workplace abuse, the media has advanced yet another new term. “Black baito” modifies the already popular phrase “black kigyō,” which are companies that manipulate or ignore labor standards in order to get employees to work overtime without pay. “Baito” is an abbreviation of arbeit, the German word that in Japan stands for part-time work, so “black baito” refers specifically to part-time workers.

A recent feature in the Tokyo Shimbun described the issue in detail using as examples young people who attend Tokyo’s Waseda University. One, a male senior, works for a “major clothing chain” where “overtime is prohibited.” He explains that if an employee works more hours than his shift designates, he has to submit a shimatsusho (written apology), but it’s usually “impossible” to complete assignments within his work shift, so he goes back to work for no pay after punching out. This is called “service baito,” a neologism extrapolated from the term “service zangyō” (unpaid overtime).

A female junior who works for a “major coffee shop chain” testifies that every day she works at least “an extra 15 minutes” without pay after her store closes for the day, and often as much as 45 minutes. She’s never paid for this time. A female senior who teaches at a cram school is compelled to meet with students out of class to discuss “summer seminars” in an effort to get them to sign up for them. She is not compensated for these meetings.

A male junior who works for a “well-known hamburger chain” describes working all night without pay to clean the restaurant prior to an inspection by the head office.

The list goes on and includes other universities and other types of businesses. Hirokazu Ouchi, the Chukyo University professor who coined the term “black baito,” tells the paper that these companies “know these employees are students working part-time, but they don’t respect the fact that they have to study.”

One way of getting them to work more is to impose quotas. A Teikyo University sophomore who works for a “big gyūdon (beef bowl) chain” says he has to sell a minimum number of dishes during a given shift. If he doesn’t, then he feels he has to remain at work until he does, and isn’t paid for the extra time.

“Students who are subjected to black baito think it’s natural,” Ouchi says. “They have no understanding of their rights as workers.”

The professor is now working with lawyers to promote greater knowledge of labor standards among part-timers, who are overlooked in the debate about workplace abuse. Students are especially vulnerable because they tend to be financially disadvantaged. According to the National Federation of University Cooperative Associations, university students on average received ¥102,240 a month from their parents in 1996. This amount dropped to ¥72,280 by 2013. In 1996, 2.2 percent of students received no money from their parents. Now, it’s 8.8 percent. Meanwhile, tuition has increased and terms for student loans are becoming stricter, so more students have to work their way through college.

However, Ouchi mentions several companies that have improved workplace conditions for part-timers, specifically the fast food chain Sukiya, which has discontinued its practice of staffing outlets with one employee late at night, and discount clothing giant Uniqlo, which now posts its salary schedules. Ouchi says these two companies did this because “society started paying attention,” and the reason society paid attention is that the media named these companies in their coverage of workplace abuse.

As is often pointed out in this column, the press tends to avoid naming names when it comes to consumer or work-related issues that might reflect badly on private firms. The above-mentioned victims of workplace abuse still toil for their problem companies, and exposing the names of those companies may put them at risk of losing their jobs. Another less justifiable explanation is that most media still rely on advertising and thus don’t want to upset a current or potential revenue source.

In the case of Uniqlo, a business magazine first reported on the retail chain’s workplace abuse, thus providing an excuse for the rest of the media to follow suit. Sukiya was being investigated by the authorities. As already existing “news” their abuses could then be reported by the mass media openly.

The successful Watami restaurant chain was the poster boy for black kigyō for a number of years, mainly because one of its employees committed suicide, allegedly due to overwork. But another reason is that the president of Watami, Miki Watanabe, is a high-profile media figure.

Another such figure is Yuri Takano, the founder of Fuji Beauty, a popular “aesthetic” salon specializing in weight loss and hair removal. As explained in the magazine Cyzo, Takano regularly appears on television as a guest because she can save money on advertising. She is outspoken, so producers like to hire her, and every time she shows up on the air she boosts her brand for free. In fact, she gets paid for it.

However, by doing so, Takano exposes herself to scrutiny, especially since she likes to brag about her wealth (three vacation homes, including one in Hawaii), and the media has been quick to report on her company’s labor violations and how her extravagance can be traced to profits based on black kigyō practices. In August, Nihon Keizai Shimbun reported that Takano blasted a group of employees at her Sendai branch for complaining to the Labor Standards Bureau about the imposition of quotas and warned that if they joined a union, “this company will go bankrupt.” Her harangue lasted two hours. She is now being investigated.

Takano is “paying the fame tax,” in Cyzo’s words. By taking advantage of TV’s desire for outsized personalities she loses the dispensation that paid advertisers enjoy with relation to the media. But more importantly, when you dare to be notorious, you’re fair game.

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