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Sunday, June 17, 2012
Watami under scrutiny after karōshi
Osaka mayor Toru Hashimoto has been compared to Adolf Hitler in the media for his authoritarian governing style, but on a realistic level he seems more like an overbearing boss. The famous tattoo controversy comes down to the notion that, as mayor, he employs city workers, and since the city's residents — in essence, his customers — voted for him to make decisions for them, he is exercising his prerogative by banning tattoos among civil servants, which he claims Osakans don't like. It's not a question of individual rights, but rather employer discretion. The same goes for teachers and the national anthem. They don't get to decide whether or not they will sing it, because singing it is in their job description.
Many people are alarmed by Hashimoto's popularity, because they think it indicates how much personal freedom people are willing to give up in exchange for perceived results. However, if we apply the boss model to Hashimoto's methodology, people may not really think they are giving up anything, because to them the concept of working for someone automatically carries with it a loss of freedom.
On Feb. 14, the Kanagawa Prefecture Labor Standards Office deemed the death of 26-year-old Mina Mori, who committed suicide on June 12, 2008, to be a case of karōshi, or "death from overwork." Mori killed herself two months after being hired as a regular employee at the Yokosuka branch of the Watami restaurant chain. Since starting the job Mori worked an average of 140 hours overtime per month, or 60 hours above the threshold at which the labor ministry deems karōshi "more likely to occur." The question of whether she was forced to work overtime is at the heart of the case, and the ministry has found that the company violated laws related to saburoku kyōtei, or agreements on working conditions concluded between employers and employees.
Conditions for overtime work must be verified by all employees either through their in-company labor union or a representative chosen by at least half of all the employees, both regular and part-time. Watami concludes an overtime agreement with employees at each of its 530 outlets throughout Japan every year, and since there is no union in the company they are each signed by an employee representative. However, the LSO found that these representatives do not actually represent. Watami's standard operating procedure is to have the branch manager select an employee to sign the agreement without explaining to the employee what the agreement says. There is no meeting of other employees and no voting for a representative. The agreement for the Yokosuka branch stipulated maximum overtime at 120 hours a month, so even by the company's own standard, Mori's work load was a violation.
Takeshi Tsukada, an executive of Watami, admitted to Tokyo Shimbun that the company's procedure for concluding overtime agreements was basically "empty." Managers chose "long-term part-timers" to sign the agreements and then just sent the documents back to the head office for filing. He said the company would correct the process in the future. However, another executive told the newspaper that Watami never bothered to change this system because "it was not a problem in the past," implying that if no one had died they'd still be doing it the old way.
But if you read the actual law, it's easy to see how a company would act the way Watami did. The regulation in question states that working hours are limited to eight hours a day or 40 hours a week, and that if an employer wants an employee to work longer, the two parties must conclude an agreement stipulating maximum overtime, which "shall not exceed 45 hours a month." Exceptions can be made, however, in consideration of what Tokyo Shimbun called the "power gap" between employer and employee, in which case there is "no ceiling" for overtime. In other words, if the employer sees the necessity, he can exercise his prerogative as an employer and set any limit he wants; or, as Hashimoto might put it, "I pay your salary so you do what I say."
Such "empty" agreements are not limited to Watami. A former labor inspector told Tokyo Shimbun that he once carried out a survey and found that 20 percent of overtime agreements are "improper," but that, in any case, if you look at proper agreements, even those concluded between management and labor unions, there are almost none where employees reject the initial offer made by the employer. The agreement is no more than a formality executed for appearances. The labor ministry revised the rules in 1988 in order to make the agreement process more rigorous, but nothing changed. The parents of one karōshi victim, a 28-year-old employee of an oil company in Yokohama who killed himself after working an average of 218 hours of overtime a month for four months (the agreement concluded between the company and the labor union allowed a maximum of 200 hours), weren't satisfied with suing his employer. They also sued the labor ministry.
But it's significant that Watami is the company under scrutiny. The president is Miki Watanabe, who has parlayed Watami's impressive growth into TV stardom for himself. He's the go-to entrepreneur whenever producers want to explore successful management models. Responding via Twitter to the LSO's recognition of Mori's suicide as being a case of karōshi, he said, "All her friends tried to reduce her mental and physical burden," but, in the end, said he doesn't "acknowledge that the company failed to implement labor supervision" correctly.
It should be noted that Watami, whose business activities reach beyond food service, is a huge advertiser. Tokyo Shimbun's multi-part report on the Mori case was the only coverage by a mainstream media outlet, but that didn't stop Watami from buying large ads in the paper for its assisted living facilities. It understands the story won't hurt it, because everybody knows the boss always wins.