Japanese Working Conditions

Foxconn has been making headlines because of their association with Apple. In the aftermath of the Mike Daisey implosion, which resulted in a public retraction by This American Life, there have been more measured articles than the linkbait that used to be published on working conditions there. We now have the results of audits instigated both by Apple and independent agencies.

You know what, though? Fuck China. Japan needs some human-rights organizations to come in and protect workers here. I guess “first world” countries don’t count when it comes to worker’s rights.

Let’s start with my working conditions. I’m a salaried worker. I work six days a week, with unpredictable daily overtime. Since three Saturdays a month are mandatory, and I more often than not also have to work on the single Saturday a month that I nominally get off, my average minimum hours are 46 hours a week. That’s if I get off exactly on time — which almost never happens. I usually have reasonable working hours, but I have had 13–14 hour days on occasion, and business trips where I’m lucky to get about 5 hours of sleep a night. I sometimes have to work Sundays as well, resulting in a 13 day work-week when that happens. Even national holidays are sometimes required work days.

I don’t get paid for daily overtime, regardless of how long I work. That’s typical for salaried workers in most countries, so I don’t complain that much about it unless it starts to get abusive. I do get paid a set daily wage for holidays that I’m required to work, but it’s lower than the hourly base rate for my salary, which makes it feel almost insulting. Even so, I’m lucky. My place is a shiny happy land filled with rainbows and sunshine compared to that of a typical office worker.

I know two non-Japanese who work for corporations in the tech industry. They aren’t coders or engineers. They do regular office work. Both of them report similar working conditions for themselves and the people they work with. I also have several Japanese friends working in office-type jobs, and over the years I’ve met a few dozen people in various industries, including some factory workers.

Twelve hour days are practically normal in any kind of office work. It’s not uncommon for some people sleep in the office, either because they were at work until after the last trains depart, or because there’s no use wasting time going home for a few measly hours of sleep before having to go back to work. One person I know reported that a co-worker considered him lazy because he only had 60 hour work weeks on average, which is supposedly the legal maximum. The co-worker was proud of putting in 100 hour weeks. Shortly after, that co-worker spent a few days in the hospital. It’s probably just a coincidence that Japanese has a term for premature death from working too much: 過労死 (karôshi).

On paper, Japanese have more paid days off than US workers (15 vs. 7 respectively, on average) but in reality you virtually never get to take time off outside of national holidays. Don’t count on padding holidays with time off either. Depending on when the holidays fall during Golden Week, you might have only a day or two in the middle of the week that are not holidays. I have been required to work on those days, with scheduled duties that preclude any paid leave being used. It’s extremely frowned upon to take any time off unless you’re a senior employee (read: close to retirement) and have put in your dues already, or you have a legitimate family crisis like your father dropping dead suddenly. A mere grandmother dying probably wouldn’t cut it.

The vast majority of companies don’t have separate sick leave. Sick days are taken out of regular paid leave or holiday leave. If you do have separate sick leave, you usually have to provide proof of an exempt illness from a doctor. Even then, you’ll be “strongly encouraged” (effectively required) to take the time from your paid leave rather than your sick leave. Considering how long your hours are and how much you work, you’ll probably have to take hourly leave adding up to at least 2 or 3 days off in a year just to have a normal life. Many bank hours end at 15:00, for example, so if you have to actually go to the bank instead of using an ATM you’ll have to take time off.

What an American would consider overtime pay — time-and-a-half — doesn’t kick in at one of my friend’s companies until after 10 p.m., and is only paid in fifteen-minute increments. Normal work hours are considered to extend one hour after the official work hours, so you have to work a minimum of 1 hour and 15 minutes to be paid any overtime — even at your regular hourly rate. Leave before that hour and fifteen minutes is up, and you just did that work for free. If you take an hour of paid leave to go to the doctor’s office, and then work until 11 or 12 p.m., you won’t be paid overtime for that day since the time off is subtracted from your total working hours for that day. At least, he said, he does get paid overtime. Sometimes. Another guy I know doesn’t get any overtime pay at all as far as I know, and he’s been at the office as late as midnight on more than one occasion.

The base pay is lower than the average for workers performing similar duties in virtually any Western country, even at higher levels of seniority (pay increases are usually linked to time in-service). It’s usually enough if you’re still living at home, which is common for many men and women in Japan until their late 20s or even late 30s, but if you’re living on your own, you must work some amount of paid overtime in order to have enough money to reasonably live on. Compounding the problem is the social expectation that people will voluntarily put in unpaid overtime. Expecting companies to actually pay you for all the time you work is regarded as being unnecessarily uptight, and even a bit selfish. After all, everyone else is doing extra work for no pay, so who are you to be making a fuss over it?

Even hourly workers and contract workers, who traditionally have stronger legal protections for compensation and fewer social pressures aren’t immune from working overtime. The endemic office ladies usually are “required” to work an hour after their nominal quitting time. Most of the time they do get paid their hourly rate, but they don’t get paid at time-and-a-half. Ever.

Factory work is much the same, with people being expected to work 1–2 hours past their usual 10–12 hour shifts on a regular basis. One Brazilian friend and his wife complained of having come off a 7 day week working 18 hour days every day that week, and the day after my visit they would have to be clocking back in at the factory.

A few years ago I saw a report on the relative efficiency of various economies. They took per-capita GDP, divided by average weekly hours for full-time workers. By their measure, Scandinavian countries generally came out quite well; relatively short work weeks with high GDP. I can’t find a link to it, but I remember the average hours for the US being reported at 41, and Japan’s at 43. That is an unfunny joke.

I work fewer hours than most of the people I know, and my weeks come out to around 50 hours. Minimum. I don’t know a single person who goes home at their nominal quitting time. I’ve never met anyone who is able to go home within even a half-hour of their quitting time. Even receptionists are kept at the office an hour after closing time just in case someone calls, whether they’ve got any real work to do or not.

All that unpaid overtime must not be going on the books. Even some of the paid overtime is undoubtedly concealed on the books in the biannual bonuses (which I’ll rant about some other time; this entry is long enough already). In the US, companies pulling these kind of shenanigans would be audited and fined — not because of labor abuses, because virtually everything I’ve discussed is within the letter of the law — but because of cheating on their taxes.

Here, the only business guy I remember getting in real trouble for labor abuses was the head of the language school Nova, who eventually got a slap on the wrist for embezzlement after the implosion of the company. Probably the only reason he got the attention that he did was because of the thousands of foreigners involved and the high potential of an international scandal. Everything about the company, from the compensation structure to the way they required employees to live in company housing was shady, and none of it was secret. Virtually every other eikaiwa (English conversation) school had similar, if less abusive practices.