Sat, Jun 14, 2008 - Page 9 News List

The end of blind loyalty to bosses

In Japan, where employee loyalty to the company is close to legend, despairing workers are fed up and striking back

By Martin Fackler  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , TOKYO

ILLUSTRATION: MOUNTAIN PEOPLE

Japan’s salarymen, famous for their work ethic and their corporate loyalty, fueled their nation’s industrial rise. But more recently, they have borne the brunt of its economic decline, enduring lower wages, job insecurity and long hours of unpaid overtime.

Now, a few are fighting back, like Hiroshi Takano.

For years, Takano regularly worked into the wee hours as a store manager at McDonald’s Japan. With his health deteriorating and the company, which operates many restaurants here, refusing to pay overtime, Takano sued three years ago and won.

In January, a Tokyo court ordered McDonald’s Japan to pay him US$75,000 in back overtime wages. Last month, the company announced it would pay more overtime to store managers.

Slowly and reluctantly, Japan’s salarymen are learning to stand up for their rights, and in the process rewriting the social contract that had once bound workers to companies with near feudal bonds of loyalty. While this renegotiation is still under way, a new generation of Japanese like Takano is seeking to limit the demands of employers with more US-style legal protections. These changing attitudes reflect a broader shift as Japan, Asia’s first high-growth success story, struggles to mature into a postindustrial economy.

“Japanese are being forced to think more about their self-interest, which is something they are not used to doing,” said Yoichi Shimada, a law professor at Waseda University in Tokyo. “People are slowly realizing there are legal avenues to defend themselves if they feel wronged.”

According to the Supreme Court, the number of lawsuits filed against employers rose 45 percent between 1997 and 2005 to 2,303 cases. In 2006, that number increased 21 percent to 2,777 cases — if lawsuits heard by a newly created labor arbitration court are included.

Adding to the alienation between employee and company has been a growing sense of resentment that workers have not benefited from the nation’s economic rebound in the last five years.

STAGNANT

While corporate profits have soared, wages have remained stagnant, feeding a perception that companies have failed to share the good times with employees. This has led some to seek a bigger piece of the pie, say legal and labor experts.

There is also a feeling that as companies have cut costs to remain competitive with China and South Korea, they passed too much of the burden onto employees. In particular, many of the recent lawsuits involve a practice known as “service overtime,” in which workers were silently pressured into logging long hours of unpaid overtime as a display of loyalty, labor experts say.

“Japanese companies have used the silence of their loyal employees as a weapon in international competition,” said Kiyotsugu Shitara, head of the Tokyo Managers’ Union, a small white-collar union that helped with Takano’s lawsuit against McDonald’s Japan. “Employees are tired of being used like that.”

Shitara and other labor experts said the recent rise in lawsuits was also the latest step in a longer-term move toward a more US-style workplace — also apparent in the recent rise in mid-career job hopping, once a rarity here.

Still, many employees involved in the lawsuits describe themselves as reluctant revolutionaries, dragged into a new, more legalistic era to which they have no choice but to adapt.

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