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Work-style reform a distant dream for convenience store supply truck industry

Trucks heading to convenience stores across the heart of Tokyo gather at a distribution center in Chiba Prefecture on May 9, 2018. (Mainichi)

CHIBA -- It is 5 p.m. at a delivery distribution center here, and a truck filled to the brim with bottled drinks and cup ramen is about to go out into the rain.

"There isn't any time for a break. My dinner is always a rice ball while I drive," says the 50-year-old driver with a wry smile. After making his rounds to convenience stores in the heart of Tokyo, he returned to the center to get another load before heading out again. He will spend over 13 hours on the job -- from 4 p.m. to after 5 a.m. the next morning.

The crowning point of the work-style reform bill that would see a series of revisions to labor-related laws is its cap on overtime hours. But for the worsening work conditions faced by the delivery industry due to a lack of personnel, many are saying that due to the relationship with the companies they supply, there is no simple way to cut down working hours. This has led to the industry being suspended from the current reform bill.

The Mainichi Shimbun accompanied a driver on his route stocking convenience stores to see the harsh working conditions faced by workers in the industry firsthand.

Connecting the delivery routes between the distribution center and the various convenience store locations are numerous small and medium shipping companies. The delivery routes are decided depending entirely on the convenience stores which stock their shelves in the dead of night in preparation for morning commute customers. Shipping companies set shifts on the assumption that each driver will work a 12 to 15 hour shift, covering multiple routes.

At the company where the 50-year-old driver is employed, including the overtime decided under a labor-management agreement, there are some drivers whose monthly working time reaches the upper limit of 320 hours. That comes out to nearly two times legal labor hours.

"If I was paid by the hour, it would barely clear minimum wage," he explained. "Working part-time at a convenience store would pay more."

He stops his truck on a corner in Tokyo's Otemachi district. Cardboard boxes containing beverages fill the truck to roughly the man's height. He reaches to take them down and transports them across the several hundred meters to the back entrance of the building. The boxes weigh a total of 300 kilograms and taking even a small step works up a sweat.

It's now 9 p.m., and the driver has stopped at a soba noodle restaurant near Yurakucho Station in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward. A line of businessmen are lining up in front of the cashier. During the summer months when drinks are a popular and necessary commodity, on the busiest days, this shop alone is stocked with 15 carts' worth of boxes, taking over an hour to transport the beverages. This inevitably adds to the hours of labor. Newly hired drivers quit one after the other.

"Because we deliver the same packages on a set route, they probably think the work will be easy at first," the driver explains. After his work has finished, even if he returns home in the morning hours, he finds it difficult to fall asleep, let alone have a restful slumber. Having a basically nocturnal lifestyle causes more stress on the body than one may imagine. Even the driver who has been working on the delivery routes for close to 10 years says he feels the exhaustion building up. "Waking up in the morning and working and then going to sleep at night ... that kind of lifestyle is the best," he says.

According to an October 2017 white paper on measures to counter death by overwork and other work-related matter approved by the Cabinet, transport and postal service workers took the top spot at one-third of all certified work-related brain and cardiac illnesses, including deaths by overwork from 2010 to 2015. An investigation contracted by the Japan Trucking Association found that when drivers who were asked about their level of exhaustion were divided by the condition of their shifts, it was found that drivers who worked from late at night to the early morning were left the most tired, even compared to long-haul drivers who spent several nights on the road.

"Without a break, we send out people 365 days a year. The shipping fees don't even pay for the costs. It's embarrassing, but all we can do is depend on long working hours," says a 61-year-old top executive at the delivery company where the driver works. "Unless convenience stores stop operating 24 hours a day, work-style reform is impossible."

(Japanese original by Akiyo Ichikawa, City News Department)

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