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20 Japanese restaurant chain staff worked over 20 hrs a day at peak, internal doc shows

A sign of Japanese restaurant chain Kisoji is seen in Tokyo on June 3, 2022. (Mainichi/Haruna Okuyama)

TOKYO -- Some 20 employees at Japanese restaurant chain Kisoji worked for more than 20 hours a day for two days in a row during a busy period -- a possible violation of the Labor Standards Act -- the Mainichi Shimbun has learned from an internal document it obtained.

    Workers at Kisoji Co., which is headquartered in Nagoya and listed on Tokyo Stock Exchange's top-tier Prime Market, worked the long hours while making traditional Japanese New Year meals, or "osechi," at the end of last year. Among the employees was one who worked for 46 hours and 30 minutes in a 48-hour period between Dec. 29 and the morning of Dec. 31, according to the document.

    In June this year, the Mainichi Shimbun reported that workers at Kisoji were complaining about overtime without pay. According to the internal document and testimonies, one employee started working at 5:30 a.m. on Dec. 29, took a break for 30 minutes from 1 p.m., then kept working until 5 a.m. the following day -- racking up 23 work hours in a 24-hour period. The record says that this individual "left" the workplace only to return immediately and start working again at 5 a.m. The employee went on a 30-minute break at noon, and resumed working until 5 a.m. on Dec. 31 -- which means this person worked for another 23 hours and 30 minutes in the following 24-hour period. As many as 20 employees worked for over 20 hours a day for two days in a row between Dec. 29 and 31, the document revealed.

    An affiliated source explained that the employees were making the to-go osechi meals at a factory in Aichi Prefecture, and the work had been in full swing since around Dec. 25. A staff member who worked there testified, "When I arrived at the factory at 5 a.m., there were people who had already been working through the night since the previous day."

    The workers apparently had to wear neck warmers and other items as the temperatures in the kitchen were kept low. During their breaks in a conference room with steel folding chairs, they slept while standing up or lay on the floor. On the night of Dec. 30, when preparation of the osechi meals reached its peak, Kisoji president Toyonaru Uchida visited the factory.

    Based on the internal document, some 40 employees are believed to have worked more than 100 hours overtime that month. This included the individual who worked for 46 1/2 hours out of 48. Workers were apparently subjected to the long working hours amid a rising demand for food to go, such as the osechi meals, as many people stayed at home amid the spread of coronavirus infections.

    Japan's labor laws cap work time at eight hours a day or 40 hours a week. If the employer makes their staff work longer, a labor-management agreement must be concluded -- as stipulated in Article 36 of the Labor Standards Act. Kisoji had set the upper limit of daily labor time at 12 hours as of June 2022.

    Lawyer Ryo Sasaki, who is knowledgeable about labor issues, pointed out, "If the daily cap is 12 hours under the agreement based on Article 36, making employees work for more than 12 hours would violate the Labor Standards Act."

    There are some cases, however, where work hours are not restricted if the person is in a managerial position. Kisoji has not answered the Mainichi Shimbun's question about whether the employees in question were in such positions.

    Nevertheless, the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare says that as a general rule, "Just because restrictions on labor time are not applied, it does not mean that working for any number of hours is allowed. Employers must not have their employees work so long that it would be harmful to their health."

    When first questioned by the Mainichi Shimbun, Kisoji claimed, "There is no truth to working hours reaching 46 hours and 30 minutes." However, when approached again by the paper, the company merely answered, "We are making efforts to secure workplaces where employees feel safe and comfortable to work."

    (Japanese original by Haruna Okuyama, Lifestyle and Medical News Department)

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