The labor ministry has started a crackdown on so-called black companies that force young employees to work terribly long hours for very little pay. The ministry said it would look into about 4,000 such companies and, if violations are found, send papers to prosecutors. The ministry also plans on publicizing the names of companies that exploit employees through illegal working conditions.

The ministry’s crackdown is long past due. According to reports from employees who quit black companies, the conditions included high pressure to work excessive hours — up to 100 hours a week — verbal abuse, unfair salary schemes and even physical violence. The reported conditions at these black companies, if true, are clearly illegal. And it must be emphasized that abusive conditions and unpaid work is more than a violation of labor laws — it is an abuse of human dignity.

The labor ministry must carry out its investigations as thoroughly as possible and spare no efforts to ensure that companies that are exploiting their workers are subject to the full force of the law. Employers guilty of forced labor imposed through unjust physical or mental restraint by such means as violence, intimidation and confinement can face prison sentences of up to 10 years.

The exploitative business practices sprang up in the wake of the economic downturn. With historically low hiring rates for new high school and college graduates, the black companies were often a last resort for many job-seekers. Many people who start work at these black companies have a hard time quitting because they feel they have no other opportunities. Bad economic conditions, though, should not be used by companies as a license to exploit their workforce.

The black companies manage to stay in business because they can always find replacements for those who get fed up with the poor conditions and leave. Essentially, the companies work the employees so hard they either passively accept the system or quit, usually not receiving their full pay. A revolving door for employees is not illegal in itself, but oft-related issues of unpaid overtime, unfair salary conditions and harassment certainly are. Companies that are suspected of engaging in such practices should be prosecuted to the full extent of labor laws, which includes the suspension of business activities.

Unpaid overtime was long a quietly accepted business practice in Japan, but for reputable companies, that practice has been curtailed, though perhaps not completely stopped everywhere. It should be. The black companies try to get away with whatever they can. However, the labor laws draw very clear lines between legal and illegal business practices. Those lines need to be redrawn sharply and clearly by the labor ministry.

Still, cracking down on these companies is only a short-term solution. As long as the economy is bad, workers will continue to be exploited by disreputable companies. The labor ministry should remain vigilant to ensure that all companies treat their workers in accordance with the law, and that black companies do not spring up again.

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