Tough economic times in Japan in recent years have led to the growth of a new social problem, the “burakku kigyo” or “black company”.  

There is no legal definition for this, but it is usually described as an exploitative employer where unlawful practices are common (in fact, normal), including excessive working hours, abuse of power, harassment and unpaid overtime work.  Such sweatshops might bring to mind Dickensian factory scenes but in fact the black company phenomenon is now associated more often with office work.  These companies rarely recognise labour unions and most of their employees are young people with limited alternative career options and limited knowledge of their rights to complain or challenge those practices.   

There have been a number of reported illnesses and deaths arising from overwork at black companies.  It is true that Japanese employers have always had a reputation for demanding long hours from their staff.  However, they have in turn ensured that those employees are properly paid, have the ability to advance in their careers and have a high degree of job security.  Black companies do not provide those balancing benefits.  Instead they tend to fall into three separate categories:  the “throwaway” type that exploits employees with long working hours and low wages;  the “sieving” employer which hires scores of employees but then dismisses everyone except those few whom it really wants; and the “disorderly” category which allows sexual harassment and other abuses of power to flourish unchecked.   

The exploitation of some younger workers in this way has gradually become such an issue that despite the obstacles to complaint, we are now seeing the first signs of organised opposition to it. Black company practices have been the subject of newspaper coverage, films and documentaries on Japanese television.   More than 50 young labour lawyers from across Japan have formed an advisory body to collect and exchange information about black companies and to represent abused workers both individually and collectively.  In addition, Posse, a non-profit labour counselling provider, also spends much of its time addressing the issues posed by black companies. On 8 August, the Japanese Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare announced that it will investigate the black company situation and that where a company is found to violate labour laws it will be removed from the list of companies to which the Employment Office will refer jobseekers.  Where breaches are serious, the Ministry will publish the company’s name and will pursue a prosecution.  

Responsible Japanese employers do not share the common black company view that full compliance with employment law would make profitable business activity impossible.  However, even the best employers get it wrong sometimes.  Therefore we believe that there should be a statutory standard or definition of “black company” to ensure that ordinary employers are not too easily tainted by that label and are not affected by any special legislative measures introduced to tackle the problem.  We believe that making such specific standards would be in the significant interest of Japan’s responsible employers.