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Despite the continuing bleak employment picture, perhaps partly because of it, many Japanese working men and women say they are unhappy in their jobs. This is not surprising, since changes in the traditional workplace are occurring so rapidly that the old rules and procedures for minimizing employee discontent no longer seem adequate. To a large extent, the old-fashioned image of the company as a surrogate family is a thing of the past. Even so, the results of a recent nationwide Labor Ministry survey, showing that as many as nine out of 10 employees either have grievances against their companies or are worried about their jobs, are cause for serious concern.

A 90.9 percent dissatisfaction rate among employees — most often involving complaints about pay and working hours — is hardly a minimal figure. The urgency of the situation is underlined by the survey’s other major finding, which was that 90 percent of the responding companies acknowledged having received complaints either directly from employees or through the in-house company union. What this proves beyond question is that most Japanese companies, at least among those that took part in the survey, have not set up any mechanism for dealing with mounting worker dissatisfaction as they shift from the old system of seniority-based wages and promotion to a new one that tends to favor merit.

Japanese companies have never embraced the practice, common in the West, of implementing massive layoffs during a business downturn. Yet current conditions have pushed Japanese corporate executives into taking steps in which the result is not so different, usually in the form of large-scale early-retirement programs and other staff downsizing and payroll trimming in the name of “restructuring.” One element looming in the background of the Labor Ministry survey was the announcement this fall by the National Tax Administration that the number of employees working at private companies decreased last year for the first time in 50 years. So did the average income of these salaried workers, mainly because of reduced semiannual bonuses, even though wages rose slightly.

Employee dissatisfaction has been growing since shortly after Japan’s economic bubble burst. The most recent of the surveys conducted every two years by Rengo, the Japanese Trade Union Confederation, among labor-union members have found a reversal of previous trends, with larger numbers of workers feeling dissatisfied than are willing to express satisfaction about their jobs. It therefore comes as no surprise that the Labor Ministry inquiry found very few employees willing to use the channels that do currently exist in personnel departments and company union offices to express their grievances.

What media reports on the survey failed to note is the growing number of temporary and part-time workers who do not have union membership. In fact, little union help is forthcoming to help alleviate grievances for employees who may be company-union members but who are on one-year contracts or were hired on a largely results-oriented basis. Worker complaints may not all be equally valid, but those uncovered by the Labor Ministry cover much more territory than wage and work-schedule questions. Many also involved the workplace environment, human-relations issues among employees and instances of sexual harassment and gender inequality.

Yet the survey found that less than 1 percent of aggrieved workers would be willing to utilize company channels set up to handle them. The majority were only willing to discuss them with their immediate superiors or a senior colleague. Perhaps this is only to be expected since the Bank of Japan announced more than a year ago its finding that nearly 80 percent of Japanese salaried workers are fearful of losing their jobs. Drinking sessions after work with colleagues or a superior can help to ease tensions and offer an opportunity to bring grievances out into the open.

Japan is now at the peak of the season for “bonenkai,” those annual forget-the-year parties generally held by companies or company sections for the sole purpose of turning into distant memories — with the help of large quantities of alcohol — all the worst that transpired at the workplace during the year. The drinking often serves to excuse the outspoken voicing of job complaints. That is not an ideal solution, since forgetting is not what workers with legitimate grievances arising from the change to merit-based employment have in mind. Outside mediation can help, especially with smaller companies, but Japan urgently needs a formal system in which employees feel comfortable presenting their complaints, and one that helps to achieve satisfactory resolutions.

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