Japan faces disarray in its mail delivery service as post offices, especially those in major cities and the Tokyo metropolitan area, struggle with mounting workloads following the dismissal of a large number of nonregular employees by Japan Post Service Co. (JPS) since September. And the situation could worsen this week.

Late in September, JPS started laying off or dismissing 46,000 nonpermanent and part-time workers to try to make up for a deepening deficit since it combined its courier service with that of Nippon Express Co. to form JPExpress Co.

JPS is one of four companies operating under the wings of Japan Post Holdings Co. since October 2007, after the government of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi privatized postal-related services.

At the Funabashi post office in Chiba Prefecture, for example, delays and confusion started late in September when 80 part-time workers, all experienced and at least 65 years old, were laid off. This represented a big reduction in the size of the workforce, which had consisted of 200 full-timers and nearly 400 part-timers.

These layoffs have caused serious disruptions as the part-timers had been given the same work assignments and responsibilities as regular employees, according to a veteran worker. Delays of at least four hours to the normal noon start of delivery work has become common.

The heavier workload has caused excessive fatigue; a growing number of workers complain that they cannot sleep.

According to a survey conducted by the Institute of Labor Administration, a private research body, six of 200 regular employees at the Funabashi post office have been forced to take days off for mental health reasons. This 3 percent rate far exceeds the national average of 0.45 percent.

If workers can’t finish their assignments during the normal workday, they must work overtime. At some post offices, management reduced incremental overtime pay, thus violating the union contract.

At the Sakura post office, also in Chiba Prefecture, employee time records have been tampered with. An internal document states that those due to start work at 8 a.m. must show up half an hour earlier and those on the night shift (from midnight) must be ready by 11:15 p.m. These extra periods are dubbed “preparatory time” and are not subject to overtime pay.

This is tantamount to forcing employees to work additional hours gratis in violation of the Labor Standards Law. The Labor Standards Inspection Office has begun watching the situation, an insider says.

At another post office, in Ibaraki Prefecture, workers resting in the cafeteria during a lunchbreak were ordered “to get back to work so you may go home on time.”

Part-timers at least 65 were also laid off at the Dejima collection and delivery center in Ibaraki Prefecture. Because of labor shortages, mail delivery was delayed two to three days in many areas under the center’s jurisdiction, according to an insider.

The confusion caused by the large number of layoffs indicates how little top JPS executives know about actual work conditions and workloads at post offices.

A confidential document circulated on Jan. 14, 2011, testifies to the haphazard manner in which the layoffs were carried out. It says that total labor costs had to be reduced by ¥32 billion in fiscal 2010 and 2011. It orders dismissal of “those 65 years of age or older as of Sept. 30” and “those who have served the company for a short period of time.” Of some 150,000 nonregular workers in total, more than 46,000 were dismissed; 14,110 were 65 or older, 20,950 had been hired since May 2010, and 11,451 had started working in June or July 2010.

A 66-year-old female worker at the Sano post office in Tochigi Prefecture, who had been working there even before the 2007 privatization, was laid off at the end of September solely because of age. JPS justifies its action with the argument that the corporate retirement age of 65 was instituted in its rules at the time of privatization. The worker counters that she was told that there was no compulsory retirement, adding that people as old as 68 were being hired.

JPS is in such desperate need of more revenue that it has forced employees to purchase allocated lots of the popular New Year’s greeting postcards. A postal worker in middle management at the Kamata post office, Tokyo, discovered to his surprise that the postcards, officially priced at ¥50 each, were being sold for ¥46 at a discount shop:

“When an employee is assigned a certain number of New Year’s greeting cards to sell and cannot find customers, he has no choice but to buy them on his own and sell the postcards to a discount shop at a reduced price, even though that means he has to bear the loss.

“After this year’s cards went on sale, so many JPS employees rushed to discount shops for that purpose that some stores put up signs saying ‘No more New Year’s greeting cards, please.'”

The service network of JPS, which covers every small corner of the nation, plays a crucial role in the daily activities of companies and individuals. It delivers about 64 million pieces of mail to some 31 million homes and offices every day of the year. Even though its share of the market has declined in recent years due somewhat to the success of other courier services, its undisputed importance is reflected in the postal business company law, which requires that all documents related to court proceedings be delivered by JPS mail service. Health insurance certificates and credit cards are also delivered by JPS.

It is tragic that this important nationwide service and network is being damaged by the bureaucratic and irresponsible attitude of JPS executives, who have little knowledge of how postal work is done.

This is an abridged translation of an article from the December issue of Sentaku, a monthly magazine covering Japan’s political, social and economic scenes.

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