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Company pays under minimum wage, tries to charge woman after she quits early

A help wanted advertisement for a restaurant in the Sugamo Jizo Road shopping area offering less than the Tokyo minimum wage of 932 yen per hour is seen in Toshima Ward, Tokyo, on Nov. 15, 2016. (Mainichi, photo partly modified)

A Tokyo company paid a woman less than the minimum wage, then illegally tried to charge her for training fees after she quit early, it has been learned.

    "If you don't pay within 10 days, we may take legal action," read a certified letter that arrived in November last year to a 21-year-old woman living in Saitama Prefecture. The sender was a company managing a yoga classroom where she had worked until the previous month. She had quit because of her overbearing bosses, and now the company was charging her for on-the-job training she received. They were seeking 3,500 yen per hour of training, for a total of 140,000 yen, a penalty for her having quit the job early. She ignored the letter, and three weeks later a letter from a summary court arrived urging her to pay.

    The woman had begun working for the company in a part-time position in October 2015. At the time she was still a student at a vocational school, and the job was one she had finally landed after struggling to find work. Once she finished training she would gain full-time employment. "Someone finally took me in," she thought, as she resolved to work hard at the new job.

    She was positioned at a workplace in Tokyo, with pay set at 870 yen per hour. It wasn't until later that she learned this was less than the minimum wage, which at the time was 907 yen per hour in Tokyo. While performing duties like working the front desk, she received training to become a yoga instructor.

    It was not long before she lost her will to apply herself to the new job. She was troubled by the manager's overbearing attitude, and a male employee who would yell at his subordinates for an hour straight. She became scared to go to work, and three colleagues who were hired at the same time as her quit in succession. At the end of October she told the company she was going to leave as well.

    It was after then that the company showed its true colors. Soon after quitting she received a phone call, in which the company demanded she pay for the training she had received. When she was hired, she had been made to sign a form saying that if she did not work for at least two years at the company she would have to pay the training costs. She refused to pay, but the company did not give up. She set her phone to reject calls from the company phone number, but then it called from a different number. Someone saying they were a department head at the company told her a letter would be arriving and hung up.

    A woman who was charged 140,000 yen by her company for training fees after saying she was going to quit is seen in this photo taken in Taito Ward, Tokyo, on Nov. 16, 2016. She says there are many people who are similarly troubled. (Mainichi)

    Terumasa Ishida of the Rengo Hiseiki Rodo Center says that this kind of behavior by the company violates the Labor Standards Act, which forbids setting up penalty fees for failure to comply with an employment contract. "This behavior is unforgiveable because it robs people of the freedom to leave their job," he says.

    The woman sought help from a labor union. The company argued that the woman was at fault for suddenly quitting, but after the union shot back that the company's actions were illegal, it ended up apologizing, withdrawing its demand for the money and paying the woman the gap between what she received and the minimum wage.

    The woman now works at a massage parlor geared toward women. She says, "Companies that don't follow the law will never follow it. The more people are unquestioning of their companies, the more they will lose."

    Meanwhile, a lack of awareness of the minimum wage is a problem. Over 5 percent of workers at mid- and small-size businesses in Tokyo and Osaka are paid less than the minimum wage. The government touts that wages are rising at large corporations, but many workers, mainly those irregularly employed, are being left behind.

    At the Sugamo Jizo Road shopping area in Toshima Ward, Tokyo, a restaurant advertised in a flier for a job paying 900 yen per hour. The man managing the restaurant said, "Until the newly hired person can do the job well, they will be paid 850 yen per hour." When asked whether he knew the minimum wage in Tokyo was 932 yen per hour, he said, "Well I don't know all the specifics ..." He explained he used the wages at other businesses as a guide, and said, "I thought the minimum wage was in the 800s."

    An official at the Tokyo Labor Bureau says, "We want to focus our investigations on problematic employers and correct them." However, lawyer Hideo Ogawa, head of a poverty-fighting section at the Japan Federation of Bar Associations, says, "The minimum wage is enforced with punishments by the national government, and paying less than it is a crime. However, unless it's reported the labor standards inspection offices won't be aware of it. Businesses think they won't be investigated for it anyway."

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