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Shady work practices earn nominations for Black Company Award

by Tomoko Otake

Staff Writer

It’s an award nobody wants.

A group of journalists and rights activists on Thursday announced 10 nominees for the 2016 Black Company Award, given to companies with exploitative and illicit work practices.

Ad giant Dentsu Inc., which has recently come under fire over the karoshi (death by overwork) of a young female employee last year, and courier company Sagawa Express Co., where a male employee at its Sendai office committed suicide after being harassed by his boss, were among this year’s nominees. The “winners” will be announced on Dec. 23.

“Dentsu, under its 10 principles including one that says ‘Don’t relinquish your work even if you are killed,’ drove a second-year male employee to suicide 13 years ago,” Ryo Sasaki, a lawyer and a member of the award organizing committee, said at a news conference in Tokyo. “Three years ago, another employee, at age 30 at the time, died from overwork. All this time, Dentsu did not improve its practices.”

Now in its fifth year, the award has helped highlight the culture of overwork, discrimination and harassment pervasive at Japanese companies, as well as push the phrase “black company” to national prominence.

As the Dentsu case has shown, many of the nominees have been faulted for cultures that breed long working hours.

The other nominees are: Chiba-based inventory services provider Ajis Co.; major discount store operator Don Quijote Co.; printing company Printpac Corp.; Kansai Electric Power Co.; restaurant chain operator Sato Restaurant Systems Group; Kyoto-based Buddhist temple Ninnaji Temple; Disu Gurande Kaigo nursing care facility in Sendai; and Japan Post.

Don Quijote was chosen for having employees log overtime of up to 415 hours over three months, way over the legal limit of 120 hours.

Kepco received a nomination for the April 2015 suicide of an engineering manager tasked with extending the life of aging reactors at Takahama nuclear power plant in Fukui Prefecture. The man logged overtime exceeding 100 hours for months as the firm was under pressure to make its application deadline to the Nuclear Regulation Authority.

He killed himself on the day the utility passed the NRA screening, according to media reports.

Japan Post, meanwhile, was involved in a lawsuit in which the family of a 41-year-old worker in Fukuoka sued the company after he had a heart attack and died in 2011. In October, the Fukuoka High Court ruled that Japan Post was responsible for his death, saying he had been harassed by his boss and became clinically depressed.

The award’s past winners include izakaya pub chain operator Watami Food Service (2013), electronics retailer Yamada-Denki Co. (2014), and convenience store chain Seven-Eleven Japan Co. (2015).

The nomination for the award, let alone winning it, has been a major PR disaster for companies involved. Such naming and shaming has also caused some controversy.

In 2013, Miki Watanabe, founder of Watami, argued against its portrayal as a “black company,” saying the firm’s turnover rate, average pay and ratio of employees on leave for mental health problems were better than the industry average. “I can in no way accept the label of the Watami Group as a black company, based only on pieces of information,” Watanabe wrote on his blog at the time.

Shoko Uchida, another member of the award committee, said that although it didn’t make the short list this time, major talent management agency Johnny & Associates had been considered for the nomination. The committee received some 100 postcards and dozens of emails from fans of five-member all-male pop band SMAP, asking it to include the agency among the nominees.

The agency’s widely reported trouble with veteran manager Michi Iijima is believed to have contributed to the band’s announcement in August that it would dissolve at the end of this year.

The Grand Prize will be picked by members of the organizing committee, while the Citizens’ Award will go to an organization that collects the most votes from internet users. The organizers said they will invite representatives of the winning businesses to come to the award ceremony on Dec. 23. To date, no winners have attended.