Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Roger Agustin

The Overtime Paradigm

September-October 2013

eing a  ‘sarariman’ and working as one and at the same time writing about it is not an easy task. As I write this article, I am actually  ‘multi-tasking’ having to be in design reviews and making decisions on the fly. While a large majority of the working force have gone into the summer holiday mode (even if there’s still a week to go until obon), we are still in a panic mode having to fix and release designs to our overseas sites/teams before we go on the Obon shutdown, and hoping everything works well when we come back to work.

And just when I was thinking of what to do next week, I saw a post of one of my former Japanese colleague who works in France lamenting about his European colleagues taking 3 weeks of vacation, when he, like me, is trying to finish so much work to compensate for the time he is not in the office. This kind of thinking doesn’t seem to work outside Japan, I guess. From a sarariman’s viewpoint, taking more than a week of vacation is close to the unthinkable. It originates from the thought of causing ‘meiwaku’ or inconvenience to the people around you.  And more, it comes with a complicated feelings of guilt not only because you feel bad about being absent from work but probably more on how the other feel towards you, because you are going to enjoy time off from work while they are left doing the hard work, including the work you were supposed to do.

The same goes for the overtime. In Japan, while overtime is a norm, there is a labor law (called the 36 Agreement or the Saburoku Kyotei) that mandates submission of overtime hours to the labor office and this is carefully monitored by unions for potential violations. I won’t delve too deep into labor laws, but the labor laws in Japan specifies 40 working hours in a week (excluding break time), but this so called Saburoku Agreement enables employers to request overtime work from workers.

But the concept of overtime has always puzzled me ever since I joined a Japanese company. To work long hours in a day seemed to be an unwritten rule in the workplace, a manifestation of working hard and loyalty to the team and the company itself. So there is this age old conversation between the boss and the subordinate when the boss asks the subordinate why he is still at work late at night. The subordinate answers back, “It’s because you, the boss, are still here. Nobody leaves the work until you leave.” I can tell you for sure this is not scripted, because this is the only answer to that question. There are probably countless reasons why we worked overtime.
(1) No choice because the boss is still in the office.
(2) No choice because all team members or a majority of the workers is still in the office.
(3)  I am a newcomer and slow at work so I need more time to do more work.
(4) I need to have overtime hours so it can compensate for my low base pay.
(5) I love my work (that’s me!).
(6) Nothing else to do when I get home.
(7) People see me as a hard worker when I work until late hours…
and more…

This concept of overtime is really complicated compared to other developed countries where working beyond the legally accepted hours needs to be reviewed and approved based on absolute necessity. Of course, overtime work in Japan is a paid work, but when you exceed the limits, it becomes what we call as ‘sabisu zangyo’ or the Service Overtime, meaning you don’t get paid exceeding your ’alloted’ overtime hours… Sounds strange but that is what it is here. And one more, when the employee gets promoted so that he is at the supervisor level, he is not entitled anymore to overtime pay, and the downside is he may be required to work overtime with the same pay…isn’t that strange? That’s what it is here. Times have changed and work has become complicated enough that a work is not readily measured by the number of hours anymore. In an ever growing competitive work environment, there seems to be no choice but to go with the flow and work hard to keep your job. I am still thankful I still have my job.

Gambare Sarariman!

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