Tuesday, November 06, 2007

tsubureru, a new verb*

A few weeks ago a Certain English Language School here in Japan collapsed after a brief period of confusion and chaos, during which its teachers were not paid on time and their rent - which had been deducted from their pay by that Certain Company - was not paid at all. Most of the teachers abandoned by that company are now at least a months' pay out of pocket, and desperately looking for another job. It so happens that this company used to employ the Delightful Miss E, though she had the good sense to jump ship (or hop ship, as the company logo might be more likely to do) in April, before the trouble started.

There is an awful lot of rumour flying around about this company, but one particularly striking rumour is that it employed upwards of 5000 foreign English teachers, and about 4000 of these were Australian. A certain fact is that this company had extremely dubious work practices**, including obviously underpaying its teachers, overcharging them for the rent it deducted from their pay, and giving virtually no sick leave or annual leave. It even penalised staff who did not call in sick before a certain time.

Many of the lower level managers in this company were Australians, and it is a salutary lesson about both Australians and people that, although these people came from a country where honest dealing and fairness at work are considered something of a national imperative, as soon as they were given the power to behave badly in their workplace, they took it. The most notable examples of the types of abuse they were offered were the little black book, and the apology. Both of these abuses were very popular with the lower level managers, who employed them well beyond the level required to be simply keeping up appearances for their own safety.

The little black book is a book in which management were encouraged to write down anything bad or "inappropriate" which staff said during their breaks or lunch times. Such "inappropriate"*** topics could include things like critical comments about students (even in cases where the students were masturbating in class, and the like!); discussions of topical issues in the newspaper; or comments about the Company itself. Needless to say, such a black book kept in an Australian workplace would soon disappear, and any low-level manager caught writing in it would be given an earful. How amusing, then, that the same people who would consider such a book abhorrent in their own country take so well to it here...?

The apology is the requirement that staff apologise to the Japanese desk staff if they are late or sick. Even if that sickness were caused by, say, being hit by a bus. The apology was expected in such cases to include flowers and a gift. Of course, the Japanese staff also had to do this apology to each other - but in practice they were never late or sick, so no problem. Naturally we all apologise to our coworkers if our sickness inconveniences them; but in this case the staff are instructed to do it by their management (those same Australian creeps...) and even, sometimes, expected to do so semi-formally.

The salutary lesson here is that while Australians may consider themselves to be the land of the fair go, the speed with which they embrace petty fascism when the cultural barriers are removed makes it pretty clear that they only extend that fair go as far as strong unions and good workplace laws force them to. Take those protections away, and it'll be "raus! raus!" all the way home...

And, for an entertaining side note, most of the staff at this Certain Company aren't exactly what one would call the sharpest blades in cutlery draw. They are also generally drawn from a pool of young, middle-class kids who don't understand industrial struggle. Were one to visit the forums, such as gaijin pot or lets japan, on which these people post - and I would advise against it, for many of the posters are an odious and sleazy bunch - one would see an amusing example of how modern, young, middle-class white collar workers react to their industrial world collapsing around them. In short, they run around flapping their arms and abusing each other for 2 months, and then when the chips are clearly down - off the table, in fact, and being vacuumed up by the cleaner - they begin to think of organising some kind of protest. If every cloud has a silver lining, then the only silver lining I can see for this one is that 4000 Australians may soon return to their home country with a much clearer idea of what they need to do to defend their rights at work.

*tsubureru, to collapse - I learnt this verb on the week that it happened
** one shouldn't assume - as many new arrivals at this Certain Company are wont to do - that the company in question represents standard Japanese corporate practice. While it is certainly true that workplace practice here is different to Australia, many Japanese have been horrified by this Company's behaviour, and the manner of its senior executives is very much beyond the pale of Japanese corporate behaviour. It is perhaps a case unto itself... or it was...
*** "inappropriate" is fast becoming my most-hated weasel word. Generally when people use it they mean to say "wrong", "rude", "immoral" or the like, but they are scared to be judgemental. And when management say it, usually they mean "something which makes our lives inconvenient"


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