How Japanese Black Companies Oppress Workers and Ruin Lives Welcome to the team…and the nightmare

    If you hear the term "black company", what kind of company do you imagine? As we all know, black is the darkest color, so if you pictured an evil company with a dark side then you would be on the right track. A black company (aka "black corporation" or "black business") is buraku kigyō ブラック 企業きぎょう in Japanese. In general, it is a term used to refer to an unacceptably exploitative employment system.

    Now, maybe you're thinking this is a word to describe a factory somewhere in China, but you'd be wrong. The term is actually usually associated with white-collar industries rather than blue-collar ones. It was coined by young IT workers in the early 2000's and, being the IT workers that they were, spread this nickname around the internet as an internet meme. Now, thanks to its fame, it is a term that can be used for other industries that are not IT.

    The Black Company And A Film

    As the popularity of the term grew, the black company problem received more and more attention in Japan. In 2009, a drama film called "A man on the verge at a BLACK company" was released. It was based on an office worker who started a 2ch thread about the black company he worked at. This company's ruthless and unethical work environment was duplicated in the film.

    As you can see in the film clip, the workers are being pushed to their limit and obviously not in good shape. Can you imagine working someplace like that for real? Well, bad (black) companies are really out there and this sparked a move towards calling them out. Still, there was a long way to go to bring about public awareness.

    The Black Company Awards

    A skyscraper housing a Japanese Black Company
    Source: Beshef

    In 2012, a group of people that included journalists, activists, and university professors formed a special committee to create the "Black Corporations Award" where the public could vote on "the most evil corporations of the year." The award name may sound silly, but its creators were not joking. They were hoping to raise awareness of black company issues as well as expose some of the evil abusers of employees. This is now an annual award.

    Graphic with Japanese text saying Most Evil Corporation Award

    The most recent award, which took place on June 17th of 2013, nominated eight companies:

    1. Watami Foodservice Co., Ltd (Restaurant Chain)
    2. Cross Company Inc. (Clothing Retailer)
    3. Benesse Corporation (Education and Publishing)
    4. Sun Challenge Corporation (Steak Restaurant Chain)
    5. Ohsho Food Service Corporation (Restaurant Chain)
    6. Seino Transportation Co., Ltd (Transportation Service)
    7. Tokyu Hands Inc. (Department Store)
    8. Tohoku University

    All nominations were made on the following basis:

    1. Actual public records on occupational problems such as a long work time, sexual harassment, or abuse of power.
    2. Long intense work hours.
    3. Low pay.
    4. Compliance violations.
    5. Flaws in the system, such as lack of childcare leave or maternity leave.
    6. Hostility to unions.
    7. Discrimination against temporary workers.
    8. Temporary worker dependance.
    9. npaid overtime (and lies about paid overtime in the job advertisements).

    Most black companies already have the above problems, so the nominees were chosen for being especially bad. After the nominations, there was a period in which people could vote. The winner? Watami Foodservice Co., and by a wide margin. They got 21,899 votes, 72% of the total. This was followed by Tohoku University (3,475 votes), Benesse Corporation (1,258 votes), Cross Company Inc (1,220 votes), Seino Transportation Co., Ltd (1,000 votes), Ohsho Food Service Corporation (744 votes), Sun Challenge Corporation (649 votes), and Tokyu Hands Inc (346 votes). Watami has won this award for two years in a row so far.

    A chart displaying the worst Japanese black companies

    Watami's winning streak is due to its notoriously abysmal mistreatment of young workers. In 2008, Mina Mori, a female employee of Watami, committed suicide at the age of 26 after reportedly working 141 hours of overtime in one month. It happened just two months after joining the restaurant chain. Some people may think committing suicide is an individual matter and that a company cannot be held responsible. However, it is reasonable to assume Mori would not have chosen suicide for herself had she not been forced into such a desperate situation. Furthermore, it is apparent just how "black" the Watami company is simply by the cold reaction of Watami founder Miki Watanabe's reaction to the case. He not only refused to meet with her family but also refused to apologize to them until last month. He finally did offer an apology in court on March 27, 2014, though he still has denied liability.

    According to an interview with a former Watami restaurant manager conducted by Takarajima magazine (September 2013 edition), upon hearing the news of Ms. Mori's suicide, the ex-manager wondered if it was really just 141 hours. During his time at Watami, he regularly worked from 7am to 12am with almost no break, making his monthly overtime over 300 hours. He also revealed that Miki Watanabe gives extreme messages to workers on every payday, such as: "Regret as hard as you die!" He even received a personal letter from the evil president in his paycheck envelope saying: "you should reflect on your sales this month by killing yourself."

    The exterior of a Watami Bar during the evening
    Source: Miyo Sekimoto

    There was also an illegal but mandatory 1,000 yen deduction from every payment and workers were told that it was for "social contribution." When Watanabe published his own book, the price of the book was automatically deducted from the payment and workers were forced to buy them as well. Although there wasn't any physical violence, he remembered that there was much verbal violence, often relating to "killing himself."

    That sounds pretty awful, right? These workers were not treated like human beings… more like robots. Though even robots shouldn't have to work this hard. Obviously a lot of other people felt the same way and anti-Watami movements have risen. On the same day that Watami apologized to Ms. Mori's family, Watami decided to temporarily close 60 restaurants (about 10% of the total) to improve their work environment. I hope this will really be the start of some reform so that others won't have to endure the same mistreatment.

    Perhaps thanks to this and the awareness brought about by the Black Company Awards, the term buraku kigyō ブラック 企業きぎょう made the final 10 of the most popular or influential Japanese buzzwords in 2013! So, consider the checkbox of "raising awareness" filled in, though there's still much work to be done.

    What Colors A Company Black?

    Black paint chipping off a wall
    Source: David Gunter

    So what are the exact qualifications for a company to be considered a black company? You can get some idea from the stories of Watami, but a lawyer named Yoshiyuki Iwasa, who is also the author of ブラック 企業きぎょう 倍返きぎょうしだ! (which means "to take double revenge on the black company") created a checklist for a website called Business Media to find out whether the company is "black" or "not black." There are thirty items on the list and if none of them apply to the company, it is pure white. If 1-9 items are applicable, it is considered gray. 10-14 is dark gray. 30 out of 30 is pitch black. You get the picture. Now let's take a look at the list.

    1. I do work overtime, but overtime is never paid.
    2. It's usual to work more than 80 hours overtime a month.
    3. I don't have a break, or at the most, 10 minutes a day.
    4. I work on my days off. Actually, I'm not even sure when my days off are.
    5. There is no paid time off system or if there is such a system, I am never allowed to use it.
    6. I never get reimbursed for expenses and always have to pay out of pocket.
    7. There is no social insurance, benefits, or pension. If I ask about this, I would be bullied.
    8. If I converted my monthly wage into an hourly rate equivalent, it would be less than minimum wage.
    9. Regardless of how long I work overtime, the overtime payment is a fixed amount.
    10. The company is constantly hiring new employees.
    11. The advertised job wage is different from the actual amount paid.
    12. There are no time cards or someone else punches you in and out.
    13. There are one or more workers who can't come to the office due to psychotic depression or nervous breakdown.
    14. I'm so busy that I often can't get adequate sleep.
    15. There is no union or company regulations.
    16. Some employees are promoted to an administrative position right after joining the company, but there is no extra remuneration for that.
    17. Employees have to run private errands for their employers.
    18. There is a slogan saying "work until you die" on the company wall.
    19. Abuse of power and sexual harassment are very common.
    20. There are so many affiliate companies and subsidiaries, though I don't even know what those companies do.
    21. Whenever some incident happens, the company changes its name.
    22. There are training sessions, which use what can be considered brainwashing or hazing.
    23. Threats such as "I'm going to kill you" can be commonly heard at the office.
    24. Violence is rampant.
    25. All the supervisors are relatives of the CEO.
    26. I was told to quit the company in a roundabout way like, "you may not be cut out for this position."
    27. I can't quit the job. If I say I'm going to quit, I'll be threatened that I will have to pay damages for quitting.
    28. They don't provide the necessary documents such as the separation slip to those who try to quit.
    29. The worker's average age is really young.
    30. The rate of people leaving their jobs within 3 years is really high.

    Now after looking through them, do any of these conditions apply to your company? Many of the items may sound ridiculous, but I have worked under some of these conditions before and I have some friends who work for such companies. However, I'm not sure if their companies are pitch black. Maybe just very, very dark?

    Black paint trailing down a white wall
    Source: rockandbacon

    According to Japan's Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare, the number of cases delivered to the General Labor Consultation Center in 2012 was 1,067,210. 254,719 of them involved troubles at work such as encouragement of early retirement, worsening work conditions, the lowering of pay, long periods of overtime without payment, or mean, abusive bosses and/or coworkers. A decade ago, only around 100,000 cases were reported. This number has increased about 2.5x, showing that either black companies are increasing in number, or, what is more likely, more people are coming forward. These companies are finally having their true colors exposed (black).

    In September, 2013, the Labor Ministry began a crackdown on black companies, too. They examined 5,111 such companies based on their high turnover rates of young workers, their past violations, and complaints from employees. Then it was revealed that over 80% of them, 4,189 companies, were indeed actually black companies engaged in illegal business practices. They were flagged for violations against the Labor Standards Act. The ministry intends to discipline the companies in question and if those companies continue to violate the Labor Standards laws, their names will be made public.

    So, now that the Labor Ministry is getting involved, can we call this the end of the story? Well, I'm afraid it's not over yet. This was only the ministry's first survey on black companies and there are over 4 million companies in Japan. So, the exciting fight has only just begun! We're counting on you, Black Company Awards and Japan's Labor Ministry!