Month: September 2014

Black Holes or a Black Company

Reality is reality.  I have bills to pay.  Due to my family situation, I cannot work a 9 to 5 job full-time.  Working 11PM to 5AM part-time works for me.  I am now approaching 3 years working in the food processing division of a company voted 2 years in a row as ブッラク企業 Black Company of the Year.

It is not easy by any means.  For an entry-level job I feel the stress and weight of working nightly in an unhealthy, unsafe and hostile environment.  I never dreamed that after passing age 50, someone would have to work in such a difficult workplace.

In the nearly three years I have worked for their facility in Asakura, I have witnessed extremely cruel bullying and verbal abuse in the facility to people in the 60s for Gawd sakes.  But, fortunately the shouting and verbal abuse was not in my usual section.  My section is pretty civil.  Well, on the surface anyway.    I observed it in another section while the new facility was being rebuilt and we were helping by packing Styrofoam boxes with the next day’s menu.  So, I should count myself lucky that it does not happen in the cut section where I work.   I was shouted at once and it was pretty funny.   I had a co-worker get angry with me and start shouting but instead of shouting AT me, he shouted ABOUT me at the wall.  My crime was that my handwriting on the form was too sloppy.  When he turned back toward me, he was mortified that there I was smiling kindly at him and totally unfazed.  I did say something like, “Are you OK, there buddy?”  He was so shocked and disturbed by my lack of emotional reaction, he went home sick immediately after that.  In my section, the bullying and abuse I see and endure almost nightly takes a more passive form, but it is equally unhealthy.

Last week, the company distributed questionnaires on the work environment to be filled out by all workers.  For the most part, people just took a minute to circle the high scores and drop them in the box.  Not me.  I am so sick of this crap.  I am tired of constantly trying to convince people that I do not work for aブッラク企業 Black Company.  While I find the benefits offered by the company to be fair and the pay is exactly paid for exactly what I hours I work, I still feel this is a company that has serious issues that are harmful to their workers.  I wrote my answers very carefully and politely in Japanese, but by God, I told them the truth.  I may have even been a little too generous with my scoring.   I expect to be called in for a one on one soon, so I can be subjected to patronizing explanations on how it is my approach to the workplace that is defective.  I assure you, my workplace is abnormal and I’m sticking with that story unless I am proved otherwise.

Am I the only one in my workplace that is being mistreated, yet cleverly mistreated in a way that appears to be within social norms and policies?  I might not be.  I wrote on my questionnaire that the workplace environment has turned worse during the past year.  Hard to believe as a first year beginner messing up everything I touched would have been easier, but its true.  People have reversed course on me.  As I result, I am probably less prepared to perform my tasks now than when I was on the job my first two months.  The first year I worked, ZERO workers resigned.  ZERO.  Then after one year, a woman who came in a few days before me quit right at her one year mark.  She had hinted to me how she preferred to stay on the other side of room cleaning by herself than work with the other people.  I never really made a connection at the time.  After her resignation and at the same time the management who works in the office changed hands.  Right after that, I watched new people hired on and gone in months.  Most recently after just a week or two.  The difference in turnover has been very significant.  Pay did not keep people in the job.  After one year, every one of us got another 100 yen per hour raise.   Some did complain about others being part of cliques and downright lazy.  One man was with us for about 8 months told me every morning before the shift ended, his co-workers would not lift a hand to help him as he took out load after load of garbage.  I knew exactly what he was talking about.  We used to have three large carts capable of holding up to 200kg of clipping that I often took out.  I used to ask for help and my coworkers refused and smiled and just waved at me.  Pretty funny, huh?  Well, one night on the last cart of three, I got a little complacent and ran the cart over my foot outside.  I suffered an avulsion fracture to my left foot.  A twisting injury to the ankle and foot may cause an avulsion (pulling off) fracture of the base of the 5th metatarsal -the bone that the little toe attaches to. A small fragment of bone at the base of the 5th metatarsal is pulled off by a strong ligament that is attached to this part of the bone.  Hurts like hell but with a wrap for 6 weeks under your boots, you can still walk.  But cycling and going up stairs is really hard.

The company I work for has been in the news in recent years due to the tragic suicide of a young 26 year worker in Tokyo.  I really do not think it is fair to place the blame for her death on the CEO at the time.  People in that situation often feel alone and are without colleagues, friends and family nearby to use a sounding board.  What was made clear consistently in the news articles was that she found herself in a position of desperation.  Overwork or Karoshi was cited.   Was that out of convenience?  Certainly, one can prove on paper or by concrete observation how many hours one was on the job, and that is just what they did.  Workplace harassment, mobbing and bullying is not so easy to document, however.  The human resources, quality assurance or production departments clearly keep a log of manpower accounting.  Wouldn’t it be nice if they kept a log of how many times or how much time a worker was subjected to intimidation, alienation or any other hostile workplace behavior?

There are 14 people including myself in my section on my shift.  There is a young man who looks just like Jimmy Fallon who is basically over my supervisor and works in the office and is in and out of the cut section .  I wish I could say all my senior coworkers, or sempai as they are called in Japan have earned my respect.  But some below them have pretty much lost all credibility for a variety of reasons.  Of the 14, I would be ranked number 10.  Four people who survived the fiery entry into the workplace came in after me.   What is interesting to me is those I respect the most are exactly at very top of seniority list.  They do not engage in petty bullshit.  They tell me firmly when something is not done satisfactorily and explain when I ask for an explanation.  It goes perfectly right down the line.  The top five senior people in the section are the most sensible and professional.  When it goes from number 6 down, those people are the ones who waste so much of production time and have the most inane complaints about my work.  They just cannot keep their pie-holes shut.  One lady, I make an exception for.  She cannot keep her mouth shut about my work, but is in fact very kind and protective and sincerely believes I have no idea what to do.  I can never be angry at her.  Sometimes, when I don’t know how to explain why I am doing what I am doing, the way I am doing and why in Japanese, I just smile and say RYU GA ARU.  This just means I have a reason.  She just laughs and says OK.  So she is the closest thing to a Vegetable Mother I have there.

Although, I was initially trained prior to the line and layout being totally redone,  I was exempted from being trained and not being brought up to speed on the new procedures one year later.  They did not actually choose NOT to train me, they made significant efforts to UNTRAIN me.  The need for them to keep me in a perpetual beginner status is very real.  The typical term for this in a workplace is perpetual trainee.  But of course here, I do not fit the category of trainee because they make great efforts to ensure I am not universally trained at all.  When I am fortunate enough to receive a quality explanation to a procedure I ask for, my co-worker almost always suffixes it with a comment to others around, “Oh, I’m sure he did not understand any of that at all.”    I try my best to be pretty specific about what I understand and what I do not understand.    Especially, in this case I am subjected to daily condescending remarks.  My coping strategy has been to self-train when I can.  Some procedures, I had to learn on my own and in some cases it surprised my co-workers.  My coworkers are sometimes more than a little concerned when they catch me looking at a form or set of instructions myself.  If I know it already, it doesn’t give them a power rush by needing to tell me only what they want me to know.  I really refuse to believe that they are all ignorant enough to believe I cannot read katakana.God forbid, if I understand something and can perform it on my own, their plans will be foiled, HA HA!

Some of the above training procedures are based on ignorance, some on racial prejudice, some really  believe I could not possibly understand even the most basic fundamentals.  As far as I know, only one member has self-professed his racism, once inadvertently in front of Filipino worker from another line.  It is prudent to be careful as there are also likely some Chinese or Koreans working  behind Japanese name badges there.   This individual is clearly the worst.  Its funny when someone quietly pulls me away from my work table to lift something and takes my place next to him and he is oblivious still running his mouth.   What an ass he is.  He entered the company after me!  So much for seniority courtesy.    I am seriously criticized on everything from how I hold a bag or how good my aim is dropping my table clippings into a wastebasket.  If an onion rolls off the table, I am told, “Don’t throw!” Believe me, if I intentionally lob an onion, you would know it!

Communication or non-communication is big issue with me there.  I thought after several weeks, since I know basic Japanese grammar I would be able plug-in any new specialized production vocabulary I knew and I would slicing and dicing smoothly my Japanese speech.  Not true at all after almost 3 years on the job.  If they do not rotate me anymore into other tasks, I forget pretty easily.  It has been over a year after all since I have run a slicing machine. I have a pretty solid grasp of the Japanese language, but as it is not my native language, I have to think a bit more before I speak.  I have to read a set of instructions on the wall slower and ask questions.  But what do my co-workers do to accommodate for this weakness?  Not a hell of a lot.   My co-workers do gesture.  Yea for them!   Well…   No they stand in front of me and gesture and do not speak a word.  Cannot really understand that.  I ask a direct simple work related question from my co-workers and I am ignored as if I did not speak.  I ask again.  I am ignored intentionally. I cannot find anything more arrogant and rude than this behavior.

By preventing me from assimilating naturally, I in a perpetual puppet status with co-workers believing they have to direct me on even the most basic moves.  For my part, I could be better in Japanese.  In my birth country, we have a good phrase, “I got this over here, thanks.”  But because I don’t want to get in an argument, I say OK.  Thank you.  I see.

I have had a long time to think about my position in the work place.  I would like to think that I myself am capable of being self-critical and taking a good solid self-inventory.  In any endeavor, I want to be better tomorrow than I was today.  But do I blame the bullies of my workplace?  Should I blame the ignorant people?  Truthfully, I do not.  I look squarely at the man who wears the blue cap who is supposed to be responsible.  I look at those top 5 most senior workers, I rely on for sound advice.  I do not blame my immediate supervisor, because workers are extremely careful not to misbehave in front of her.  When she is cutting next to me at the table, people do not bully others.  Just last week she stepped away three meters and the biggest trouble maker in the place tried to start some shit with me.  Then when she came back, he and another guy tried to tell her I was cursing them out in Japanese.  She just shook her head.  I think she knows how shy I am and how much I hate to speak unless necessary.   I am confident that if she saw someone being abused, she would put a stop to it.

I have to take a very critical view of her immediate boss who although speaks very kindly to me seems to have created a fertile ground for a hostile workplace.  More people have left since he arrived than ever before.  I know when he speaks to me and older people, he speaks to them as if they were children.  Some of the older workers privately grumble about this and that but due to their culture do not challenge him.  So, I feel they take out some of their frustrations out on me.  Now back to the number 2,3,4 and 5th most senior workers.  I am bullied, disparaged and unfairly criticized often in front of them by others.  They say nothing.  They also are sowing the seeds for hostility to grow.   By condoning this behavior and standing silently by, they are saying it is OK.  that is depending on how expendable a member of their society may be.  My company needs to do a much better job of training their management and supervising their management.  I may be strong, but I know others are not and yet another tragedy could occur because serious problems just like this are ignored.

I have bills to pay.  Due to my family situation, I cannot work a 9 to 5 job full-time.  Working 11PM to 5AM part-time works for me.  I have grown-up responsibilities.  I am not going to let bullies, intimidation and those who refuse to let me become a full participant of the team call the shots.  Reality is reality.  As of this date, I am still here.   Get over it.  I work for ブッラク企業 a Black Company.