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Workers in Japan pressured to stay in jobs amid labor crunch

Companies use shaming and intimidation to stop employees quitting

Breaking up is hard to do: Japan’s workers remain stuck in their jobs.

TOKYO -- Japan's labor shortage has hit many companies hard, but the biggest victims may turn out to be employees themselves.

There are growing reports of employees who want to change jobs facing harassment and intimidation from their own bosses, according to complaints received by regional labor bureaus.

The pressure tactics, particularly noticeable in smaller companies in small municipalities, give a new meaning to the Japanese tradition of "lifetime employment."

In fiscal 2017, labor bureaus nationwide heard 38,954 complaints about workers being pressured to stay in their jobs, 17% more than for unfair job dismissals.

Eight years before that, in fiscal 2009, the trend was exactly the opposite, with four times more complaints about unfair termination than those about being forced to stay put at work. 

The problem is affecting all parts of Japan, with Yamagata Prefecture on the main island of Honshu reporting the highest ratio of workers being pressured to stay, followed by Miyazaki Prefecture on the southern island of Kyushu.

Pressuring workers to stay at their jobs has been illegal since after World War II. It has been finding favor again among some companies hard hit by the shortage of workers, particularly over the last two years as the country's economic recovery has gathered pace.

In one case in the Tokyo area, a 25-year-old sales representative at a trading house tried to resign after receiving an offer for a better job. But her boss refused to discuss her resignation, she claimed, saying she could not quit.

For two weeks, her boss continued to dodge her. Finally, the women complained to the company's compliance division, after which exit procedures began, but not before delaying her departure by about a month.

Miki Suda, a legal specialist in labor disputes, has handled nine cases over the past year. Most involve people at smaller companies.

"In May, a woman in her 30s who tried to leave a small publishing company was berated by her boss for being ungrateful," Suda said. "I often hear about employees being intimidated by superiors at small companies, who threaten to sue for damages should a worker quit."

The labor bureau of Nagasaki Prefecture in southern Japan has been receiving a large number of complaints from workers about this type of harassment. Akinobu Uchiyama, deputy head of the bureau's work environment and equal employment office, said few people can defend themselves against their bosses' heavy-handed tactics.

Part of the problem lies with managers trying to save their own skin. The previously mentioned 25-year-old woman said her boss wanted to avoid any fallout caused by a subordinate leaving the company.

Forcing workers to stay with their companies was fairly common before World War II, after which it was outlawed under the Labor Standards Act. Now, employers found guilty of coercing employees to work against their will can face up to 10 years in prison.

In addition, Japan's Civil Code stipulates that if an employer and worker have not specified the term of employment, the employee may terminate the relationship by giving two-week notice. Companies have no legal authority to reject a resignation. But even today, many companies and workers do not know the law.

The trend has spawned a new type of business: the retirement agency, which submits formal letters of resignation on behalf of workers too timid to go it alone for fear of being harassed.

Tokyo-based Exit charges 50,000 yen ($445) for the service. President Toshiyuki Niino, 28, said the company simply conveys its clients' intention to quit, steering clear of legal areas to avoid violating laws that govern attorneys.

Exit has assisted about 1,000 people -- mostly males in their early 20s -- since it was founded last year.

A growing number of workers who feel harassed after indicating their intent to resign are asking labor bureaus to intervene and help negotiate financial settlements.

According to a 2017 survey conducted by online recruitment company En-Japan, 65% of companies made counter offers to employees looking to quit, including hiking salaries. Yet 60% said that less than 20% of workers accepted.

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