University students facing excessively heavy workloads and responsibilities in their part-time jobs that interfere with their academic studies is an increasingly serious problem that calls for prompt action by all relevant parties. Behind the problem is the tightening financial conditions of many students who need to earn money to pay their tuition and other expenses, and certain employers’ growing dependence on low-cost part-time workers to run their operations. In the worst cases, students reportedly find themselves failing to advance even though they originally took their job so they could keep up with their studies.

In a recent online survey by the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry, the first of its kind, about 60 percent of the 1,000 university and graduate school students polled said they experienced troubles over working conditions in their part-time jobs, ranging from being forced to show up for shifts other than they agreed to when they were hired, to unpaid overtime and being forced to work long hours without breaks.

Even though labor laws and regulations oblige employers to give employees written documentation of their work conditions, including wages, only 41 percent of the students polled were provided with such paperwork, while 19 percent said they were not even verbally given concrete explanations about their employment conditions. About 18 percent of the respondents said their workload encroached on their studies.

The labor ministry survey is only one of the findings about the problem now referred to as burakku baito — a coinage from the notorious “black companies” that force employees to work excessively long hours under exploitative conditions and the shortened form of the German word arbeiten meaning work. Complaints that reach labor unions, experts and lawyers dealing with the issue allege that students are given excessive workload and duties — sometimes at pay below legal minimum wage — at their part-time jobs and are unable to attend classes or are failing exams because they can’t find the time to study. Most of the complainants worked in cram schools, restaurants and drinking establishments, and retail outlets such as supermarkets and convenience stores.

One might think the solution would simply be to quit. But a growing number of university students are reportedly dependent on income from part-time work to pay for their education. Surveys show that while students used to work mainly to pay for their leisure and hobbies, an increasing number of them today cannot do without part-time jobs to cover tuition and living expenses. The amount of support for education that many parents can afford is falling and accounts for a declining portion of students’ income, while tuition is rising and scholarships are not widely available.

There appear to be many other factors at play leading students to endure the plights of their part-time jobs. In some cases, employers or managers, taking advantage of many students’ lack of social experience or knowledge of labor laws, reportedly resorted to psychological pressure, threats or violence to stop the students when they announce their intention to quit. In one reported case, over which a labor union is in dispute with the operator of a restaurant chain serving the greater Tokyo area, a university sophomore expressed his desire to quit in August after having to work 12 hours a day at one of its restaurants since April, but gave up when his manager threatened him by saying the company would sue him for the damages incurred by his departure. Part of his wages still remain unpaid, and he was also forced to pay for foodstuffs that he allegedly damaged while he was working, according to the union.

Behind such examples is an increasing reliance of certain businesses, particularly restaurants and drinking establishments, on low-paid student workers to run their operations as they cut back on full-time employees to reduce manpower costs. As a result, the part-time workers are reportedly forced to take on duties that used to be the responsibility of full-time employees, and the growing manpower shortage in certain sectors make them all the more indispensable for their employers and managers.

The labor ministry plans to follow up on the survey by requesting the associations of industries in which the problematic labor practices concentrate to correct the situation, That will not be sufficient. Actions should be taken against employers that violate labor rules.

Students who take part-time jobs should also realize that there are laws and rules against unfair labor practices. They need to be educated about them so they are aware of their rights, and not remain silent when their employers make irrational demands. Labor authorities are urged to expand their efforts to field their complaints and take corrective action. And the employers, if they need the student workers as a crucial source of manpower, should take steps to set appropriate working conditions that do not interfere with their studies.

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