Amazon’s Auschwitz?


The Japanese Communist Party’s “Red Flag” newspaper wrote an article about the deaths of three Amazon Odawara warehouse workers. The article has been pulled down from the party homepage. The reality is that families of the dead never sued Amazon as the cause of death were deemed private matters. The Labor Safety Inspection Office never ordered remedial action to be taken after the deaths.

However the blogs about the warehouse are calling it “Auschwitz” because of low wages and long hours causing fatigue. In any event it seems that the Communist Party took it down on the basis that “Auschwitz” was deemed an inappropriate comparison to the plight of the factory workers at Amazon’s warehouse operations in Odawara.

The Japanese Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare (MHLW) has been going to great lengths to improve work-life balance (e.g. Premium Friday) and limiting overtime to 100hrs a month and 720 hours per year.

Perhaps the MHLW could move to enforcing a minimum 10 working days holiday for staff. It is not hard to find holiday packages to Europe or America for  4 nights only. Hardly the ideal way to wind down.

Yet we mustn’t forget that Japan is not capitalism with warts but communism with beauty spots. Often change has to be driven at a government level because businesses are too afraid to make even boldly common sense moves by themselves for fear of losing face. Take former PM Koizumi’s “Cool biz” programme that encouraged companies to allow workers to abandon neckties and jackets in summer to combat the heat combined with power restrictions. Corporations were too afraid to think outside the “box”. The state needed to rubber stamp it as a norm.

Death from overwork on the Tokyo Olympic Stadium


After the first stadium was rejected for its exorbitant cost, the ‘budget’ conscious stadium started 14 months later than anticipated. Due to the delay, work on the new stadium has caused another scandal – excessive overtime. One worker has taken his life after logs showing he had worked over 211hrs of overtime in a month. One shift saw the worker start at 6:30am and finish up 26 hours later. One wonders what will turn it? If Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike offers a glib apology what hope is there of reform? The punishment for Dentsu (who saw a worker commit suicide) was it wasn’t allowed to apply for any Tokyo government ad contracts for one month.

While the advent of Premium Friday (workers can knock off at 3pm on the last Friday of each month) is a positive step forward and having employees clock on & off makes sense, there is a deep seated cultural problem of not wanting to become an outcast within a company. Although the The Japan Institute of Labour Policy & Training reports that since 2002 bullying and harassment claims to the Labor Tribunal have soared from under 6% to over 20% at the same time total disputes have trebled to over 300,000 annually. One worker from Olympus complained his bosses were being unethical by poaching many of a contractors staff. His punishment was demotion among other humiliation. In order to avoid being unfairly treated, people are using the ‘-hara’ (pawa-hara = power harassment, seku-hara = sexual harassment, mata-hara = maternity harassment) route to their advantage as the following charts show.


For corporates in Japan, the government is the leader. It took PM Koizumi some 15 years ago to introduce the ‘Cool Biz’ concept (removal of neckties in the middle of sweltering summer during a period of power conservation) because corporations didn’t want to risk being the odd one out.

However there are exceptions. One company in Japan has a very open approach to hiring and paying its staff top rates that are based on performance. Staff are willing to work long hours because inputs have transparent outputs. Instead of getting one or two months pay twice a year like many Japanese corporates offer no matter how ordinary the real performance is this company has employees who think, according to one, “like working in heaven.” Simple – they are paid for their abilities and the trappings of that success are indeed visible.

Calbee – leading Japan’s work-life balance agenda but why others will struggle to follow


Calbee is a famous Japanese potato  snack maker. It is also 20% owned by Pepsico which owns brands such as FritoLay which makes Doritos. Work-life balance is a dangerous game for most salarymen and women. Japanese workers often feel that their chances for promotion maybe hindered if they engineer the wrong mix of work and life. I recall my first company in Australia. It was a Japanese broker. When daylight savings season came they were frustrated because leaving the office while it was sunny outside meant they often had to spend at least another 2 hours at their desk. They felt it was shameful to go home while it was still bright. That is the sense of duty to ‘appear’ loyal even if you are not doing anything.

Such matters surrounding work/life balance have been brought to the forefront of public debate after a young 24-yo worker from advertising giant Dentsu committed suicide due to “claimed” stress related from overtime. We may not know if it was because of “other” factors. She was supposedly working 105 extra hours a month according to the company . Since November 2016, Dentsu has made it impossible for workers to clock in more than 65 hours a week, down from 70. ‘Karoshi’ (death from over work) is no rare occurrence. Part is down to inflexible working practices while the rest is driven by the internal culture of some Japanese firms which rank hours ‘dedicated’ above work ‘achieved’.

25% of Japanese companies reported workers doing 80+ hours vs 16% in the US and 12.5% in the UK.

However Calbee, with its heavy American influence is bucking the trend. The company is set to operate the first ‘work-from-home’ rules for a major listed Japanese corporation in 2017. Since 2013, Calbee began to encourage its employees to leave the office early on Wednesdays. Summer Time was also introduced in the summer and its offices and plants started working earlier in the morning, helping to streamline operations and reduce the amount of overtime.

Perhaps Japanese companies should truly look at ‘efficiency’ for their workers and boost the incentive based pay structures that offer very transparent goal setting. Too often the most talented employees get paid the same as flunky colleagues based on age or tenure. Shuji Nakamura, the inventor of the blue LED, took umbrage that he wasn’t properly paid for his ingenuity by his employee Nichia.  Nichia made over Y120bn off his discovery but he was treated more or less as just another employee with no special bonus given. He took the company to court and after a lengthy trial where he was initially awarded Y60bn ($US500mn) took an out of court settlement of Y844mn (c. US$8mn) in 2005.