LOS ANGELES – With so many university students hungry for part-time jobs to help pay for their studies today, it’s an ideal world for unscrupulous companies seeking to cut labor costs. Although times are slowly changing in Japan and the United States, companies still hold a decidedly upper hand.
The recent first-of-its-kind online survey by the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry of 1,000 university and graduate school students in Japan found that about 60 percent were disaffected with working conditions for a variety of reasons, ranging from unpaid overtime to long hours without breaks.
Although labor laws spell out what companies are required to do, not all are in compliance. “Black companies” (burakku baito) are notorious for taking advantage of the precarious situation of desperate students. As a result, their studies suffer.
The situation is similar in the U.S. But there the problem largely involves interns. The Fair Labor Standards Act regulates minimum wages and overtime for workers, including interns. To determine if internships were truly designed for learning purposes rather than merely for cutting payroll, companies in the past were required to pass a six-part test. For example, the internship was supposed to be similar to the training in an educational environment, and it could not displace a regular employee.
If the company could not pass muster on all counts, the intern was deemed a part-time worker and entitled to a minimum wage and overtime. In short, the acid test was whether the intern or the employer was the primary beneficiary of the relationship. That distinction is crucial, since in any workplace both employer and employee benefit to some degree.
Companies in so-called glamorous fields in particular were able to get away without any consequences for too many years because demand far outran supply. No one wanted to be identified as a whistleblower for fear of being permanently frozen out of future work in the industry.
The turning point seemingly came in June 2013 when two production interns successfully sued Fox Searchlight in federal court for violating minimum wage laws. But just when the matter seemed settled, an appeals court in July 2015 sent the lawsuit back to a district court, holding that the six-prong test was too rigid.
Although the law in Japan does not distinguish between internships and part-time work, no company wants to endure the adverse publicity that a lawsuit unavoidably brings. Nevertheless, pressure is mounting for a clarification because rising tuition and living expenses continue to weigh heavily on university students.
If the labor ministry cannot force burakku baito to change their tactics under the present law, students will have no choice but to turn to the court of public opinion. Maybe there they can get the justice they deserve.
Walt Gardner writes the Reality Check blog for Education Week in the United States.
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