National / Media | MEDIA MIX

Just how convenient are convenience stores in Japan?

by Philip Brasor

Contributing Writer

The recent trend of online videos showing “baito tero,” or “part-timer terrorism,” enacted by part-time workers has sparked another media discussion about the plight of low wage earners. Most of these videos were recorded by people working in food-related businesses, and explanations for why they are eating merchandise on the job or retrieving food items from the garbage to pass on to customers range from adolescent-grade mischief to payback for suffering the indignities of what the working poor put up with. The implication of all this rude behavior is that the perpetrators don’t seem to care if they are caught because getting fired is no big deal. They can always find another low-paying job.

Some of the videos were made in convenience stores, a work environment that is presently being scrutinized from a different angle, that of franchise owners demanding more say in the hours they stay open. The norm for a majority of outlets attached to the big three convenience store companies — Seven-Eleven Japan Co., Lawson Inc. and FamilyMart Co. — is round-the-clock operations. Virtually all franchisees are required to keep their stores open 24/7.

This complaint has been common for years. The recent flurry of stories was triggered by a Seven-Eleven franchise owner in Osaka who decided to close his store between the hours of 1 a.m. and 6 a.m. because there were almost no customers during this time period and he couldn’t find enough workers to fill those hours, meaning he’d have to do the work himself. Seven-Eleven Japan Co. said it would fine the franchise owner ¥17 million in accordance with the terms of his contract.

Using a typical Lawson’s store as a model, a franchise promotion website managed by Fc-convenience.com estimates that when a store’s monthly sales are ¥15 million, then the owner ends up with about ¥4.7 million after paying for stock. From that they have to pay a “franchise royalty” as well as staff wages and overheads such as electricity. In the end, their profit is about ¥458,000.

That sounds pretty good but, given the variables, it’s hardly guaranteed. The main problem, according to Haruki Konno of the labor support group Posse, writing in a commentary that was published on Yahoo Japan, is that the franchise owner isn’t really an independent operator. The owner’s more like a contracted employee since he is bound to a franchise agreement. That’s why convenience store companies actively seek out married couples, which are indispensable to the 24/7 system and, as it happens, the Osaka franchise owner’s wife died last May. In order to maximize their own income, franchise owners adjust personnel costs because it’s the only expense they can control. The Osaka owner told the Asahi Shimbun that it was difficult for him to offer higher wages in order to secure staff.

According to the website Bengo4.com, these matters were discussed last spring in hearings held by the Central Labor Relations Commission of the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, which was trying to determine if franchisees are owners or employees in terms of labor law. Meanwhile, the Tokyo Labor Bureau found that 95.5 percent of convenience stores in Tokyo were in violation of the law, mainly in terms of working hours and matters relating to health. One former franchise owner told the bureau his staff were paid at the minimum wage because that’s all he could afford and, as a result, it was difficult to keep employees. According to the website, the industry blames the problem on the labor shortage and management inexperience: franchise owners don’t know how to set wages.

Mainstream media organizations have played up the labor shortage angle without sufficiently talking about low wages. Supposedly, wages are rising due to demand for workers, but an article in the online version of the business magazine Diamond made the case that part-timer terrorism and low wages have a close relationship. Still, the conversation about part-timer terrorism is always about wayward youth, not labor exploitation. All the convenience store chains, by the way, are sizable advertisers.

Diamond found that the wage for convenience store workers, which averages about ¥974 per hour in the three major urban areas, has not increased significantly since 2013, when there was also an increase in part-timer terrorism. In those days, however, such activities were called “bakattā,” a mashup of “baka,” meaning “stupid,” and Twitter, where these videos often ended up. Bakattā was being referenced by members of the public around the same time an employee of a food processing company spiked some frozen food with an agricultural chemical. The perpetrator was portrayed as being “weak,” but he was angry because his already low wage had been reduced substantially. Most of the bakattā videos weren’t so much about sabotage but rather workers complaining about pay and conditions. Convenience store clerks were well represented, and the labor support group Black-Arbeit Union cited numerous instances of exploitation at convenience stores: Workers forced to buy unsold merchandise to meet quotas or sales targets, or doing administrative tasks off the clock, or making up for discrepancies in the cash register totals with their own money.

The convenience store industry has convinced the government to include store clerks in the list of new occupations approved for work visas. As it stands, most non-Japanese who work at convenience stores are in the country on student visas, which allow them to work a limited number of hours. Writer and editor Kensuke Serizawa, who has written a book about foreign convenience store workers, said in an article published last summer in the online magazine News Post Seven, that more than 40,000 foreign laborers were working at convenience stores in 2017 but the majority were in large cities, presumably because that’s where Japanese-language schools predominantly are.

Perhaps the new visa program will get more foreign workers into less populated areas, where convenience stores serve a vital function. In such areas, they really should be open 24 hours a day, since there are fewer public services, but asking franchise owners and part-timers to effectively subsidize that set of circumstances may be asking too much of them without more concessions from the industry or help from the government.