Employees in Heat

Workers urged: Go home and multiply

I think Canon has the right idea here, but I don’t really think we are in “Japanese-companies-make-employees-go-home-early-to-make-babies trend” territory yet. This, however, would be a pretty amazing thing to see implemented across the board. I wonder why Canon has been the first to act.

This is good timing with the recession too. There is just going to be less work for everyone in general, so yeah, send people home already.

That being said, does anyone think that two days a week is going to cure the birth rate? Companies may want to consider, I don’t know, permanently fostering a better culture of work-life balance. Two days a week is kinda like, you should be at work doing nothing at a snail’s pace for twelve hours, but these are drastic times and we have to let you out! So go forth and multiply! But once you have more children, start working twelve hours again.

(I apologize in advance for the Western-bias in being pro-low work hours. I don’t know whether it’s from Plato, Christ, or Marx, but I have this odd idea that personal identity should also be allowed flourish outside of the office walls.)

W. David MARX
January 27, 2009

20 Responses

  1. M-Bone Says:

    “I don’t know whether it’s from Plato, Christ, or Marx”

    It’s Marx – Plato didn’t mind the slaves working hard and Christ inspired the Protestant Work Ethic ™.

    In terms of life of the mind – Plato thought that our worthless asses should be ruled by philosopher kings and Christ, well he thought that everyone should have a rich inner life as long as they believed exactly the same thing.

  2. W. David MARX Says:

    You can’t have Marx without the other two, so let’s call it a long tradition for the idea of liberation from chains.

  3. Adamu Says:

    Canon’s top executive Mitarai is the current head of Keidanren, so like Toyota before it, Canon becomes the guinea pig for Keidanren’s harebrained schemes. I don’t know what happened to their plan to open “assisted suicide centers” but I’d hate to work at the company that takes the Keidanren chairmanship when it comes time to try that one out.

    Temporarily shutting down offices and giving unpaid vacations is also known as giving employees a “furlough” and is being tried in the US as well for companies who are having trouble finding short-term cash flow to pay bills. Too bad they aren’t branding it as “baby-making leave”.

    Also, these sorts of reports must be taken with big grain of salt. A “lights out” policy can mean just that – the lights are timed to go off at a certain time and those who remain simply need to turn them back on. A corporate culture of 12-hr days doesn’t change just because someone changes the light timer and sends out a mass e-mail. Why would a work routine that lasts 12 hours on Monday take 4 hours less on Tuesday? Reversing the assumption of long hours is key. Clearly defined job descriptions and goal-setting, management that leaves at quitting time, and other rule-setting would help get at the structure of this problem.

    Also, Canon is based in Tokyo. Isn’t the birth rate in Tokyo doing just fine?

    I actually don’t think the debate over work hours is a Japan vs. the West thing, since it isn’t a choice between two systems but among many options, and any change will have to start from where Japan currently is — it is hotly debated in Japan, and can even be seen in the current controversy over whether temporary work is a legitimate form of employment.

    If Japanese firms didn’t (by law) offer such enormous benefits and protection to their regular employees — and conversely offer next to nothing to the unfortunate lot of temporary and contract workers that cannot secure regular employment — then there would be much less commitment to one company and quite probably reduce the incentive to sit around in the office all day.

    But the dominant story in the media seems to be that regular employment should be a right for all and the temporary and contract workers are being unfairly denied their rights and are vulnerable to the capitalists’ heartless personnel cuts.

    This basic attitude that companies should be a sort of corporate commune (運命共同体) will die hard, but the gap between what companies can afford to offer and what employees expect is so vast that it must in fact die.

  4. M-Bone Says:

    Did you meant that you can’t have Marx without the other two? I agree (and it makes more sense if you throw in Hegel), but something tells me that the three wouldn’t have gotten along too well at a dinner party.

    “so let’s call it a long tradition for the idea of liberation from chains.”

    Yes, but let’s also not forget that the Moores and the Voltaires and the Humes and the Lockes and the Founding Fathers pretty much loved the idea of a tiny class of wealthy idlers supported by the salt of the earth.

    The lesson for Japan should really come from northern Europe in the last 20-30 years – innovation, consumption, growth, socialism and lifestyle CAN go together.

    I’m starting to like Keidanren – opposed to PM Yasukuni visits, pro higher minimum wage, pro lower working hours. Damn, now we know where the Shakaito went.

  5. W. David MARX Says:

    I actually don’t think the debate over work hours is a Japan vs. the West thing

    That’s because you are a horrible imperialist.

  6. Young James Says:

    but I have this odd idea that personal identity should also be allowed flourish outside of the office walls.

    i think this is proof that you were raised in a counter-revolutionary petit bougoursie family rather than coming from a proper working class background. You’re definately not a cutter.

    If Japanese firms didn’t (by law) offer such enormous benefits and protection to their regular employees — and conversely offer next to nothing to the unfortunate lot of temporary and contract workers that cannot secure regular employment — then there would be much less commitment to one company and quite probably reduce the incentive to sit around in the office all day.

    you’d really have to do a demographic breakdown, but I’m curious as to whether the 12 hour day is really the cause of the decline in births (im doubtful, but i dont have any statistics), conversely i know many workers who suggest the problem is just the opposite, that the shift towards temporary workers has come alongside dramatically reduced priviledges and benefits for seishain – how many companies do you know that still provide company housing and significant pay increases for being married/having children? How many companies do you know that fully pay overtime and dont demand large amounts of service overtime? The traditional system and its multiple systems for encouraging marriage and procreation has largely been eroded.

    While its definatley becoming vogue to offer increasing bonuses for the birth of each child, (I think Softbank gives something like 5 or 10 thousand dollars for the birth of your third child, and my company’s union pushes for similar progressive bonuses each spring) but I doubt the success of such actions in the face of longer term structural and demographic trends.

  7. W. David MARX Says:

    i think this is proof that you were raised in a counter-revolutionary petit bougoursie family rather than coming from a proper working class background. You’re definately not a cutter.

    I don’t know about petit bourgeois, but I think you can argue that Marx saw long work hours as a dystopian product of capitalism — bosses squeezing as much work as they could out of their employees. Or at least Marx believed that work should be the means to self-actualization. Even if workers own the means of production, I’d hope that they set reasonable work hours for themselves.

    Your other points are solid.

  8. Adamu Says:

    Correction: Tokyo has the LOWEST birthrate in Japan at around 1.0 (Okinawa has the highest at 1.7)

    Working hours and the general work environment should not be discounted. The biggest factor behind the low birthrate is late marriage by women. The reasons for this are several, but they include the revolution in education for women and the failure of the society to create infrastructure to support these women. Specifically, women who want a successful career and children cannot do both, and a big reason for that is because having children makes it very difficult to *work 12 hrs a day alongside the men!*

    But you have a point — the crumbling of Japan’s social safety net, the gutting of the middle class that was enabled by the dual employment system, and the generally dismal economic and prosperity outlook can’t make people excited to bring children in the world. A sustained, broadly distributed economic recovery would no doubt help foster births as they have in the past.

    Two govt whitepapers are good reads for Japanese readers:
    http://www8.cao.go.jp/shoushi/whitepaper/w-2004/html-g/html/gg122000.html
    http://www8.cao.go.jp/shoushi/whitepaper/w-2008/20webhonpen/html/i1111000.html

  9. Graham Says:

    I think reducing working hours alone won’t increase the birth rate. Italy has a birth rate almost as low as Japan, and like Japan, has a shrinking population. Italians certainly don’t work long hours like Japanese do. One explanation I saw that made a lot more sense was that apparently, Italian men are unwilling to help with chores, and this leaves women with the choice of working or having an extra child. Sounds kinda familiar!

    Obviously a husband can’t help with chores if he’s always at work, but it just shows that you can’t reduce hours and expect a commensurate increase in babies. Here’s the article: http://www.doki.net/tarsasag/novedelem/upload/novedelem/document/birth_rate_in_Italy.htm

  10. Freakman Says:

    I would like to add a few things to Adam’s argumentation.

    “But you have a point — the crumbling of Japan’s social safety net, the gutting of the middle class that was enabled by the dual employment system, and the generally dismal economic and prosperity outlook can’t make people excited to bring children in the world.”

    I live in France, and as you know, my country is popping babies like never before (they’re calling it Baby Boom Redux).
    And most of what you said can be said for France too : social benefits are being eroded one by one, French people are depressed, they say France is doomed in the current economic context, and just like Japan, the middle class is pretty shaky (constantly increasing real estate prices + stagnating salaries + inflation)

    The only reason I can think of for the current French demographics is the major state-backed child daycare. It’s easy to have children, and it’s (semi) easy for women to get back to work shortly after because of all the daycare facilities.
    Those daycare facilities have a catch though : they all close at like 18:30-19:00, so they require the father/mother to leave work at a reasonable time.

    For factual numbers : http://www.cairn.info/article_p.php?ID_ARTICLE=INNO_020_0163
    (Couldn’t find any English version of that article though)
    Its main conclusion is that having a child means a French woman will have to give up 2% of her salary, while a Japanese woman will have to give up 72% of her salary.

    With such numbers, it’s clear that as long as something is not done by the gov/companies to support child birth actively, Japan’s birthrate is going nothing but down.

  11. Adamu Says:

    Hm, I kind of fudged things by trying to change topics to the “real issue” but I guess the question here is – will Canon ordering people to procreate produce more children?

    It is said that Kim Jong Il was conceived in a fire-warmed pit dug by Soviet soldiers to provide a place for General Kim Il Sung to be with his new wife, when they were stationed in the Russian Far East.

    I don’t know why I am mentioning this, but as you can see determined people will have kids if they feel it’s for a good cause.

  12. Connor Says:

    “It is said that Kim Jong Il was conceived in a fire-warmed pit dug by Soviet soldiers to provide a place for General Kim Il Sung to be with his new wife, when they were stationed in the Russian Far East.”

    That sounds awesome. Do you remember that scene in The Fellowship of the Ring where Christopher Lee (who is already kind of terrifying just by himself) climbs down into that filthy dirt hole and there’s this like writhing membranous mass that his little elves* cut open and a big hairy orc comes out? Do you think that this was like that? Will they make it like that in the biopic?

    *not actually elves

  13. Roy Berman Says:

    Personally, I suspect this is really more of an attempt to cut costs during the recession. Since Canon can’t easily eliminate full-time positions and they can’t reduce their hours in a normal way, they have to resort to a roundabout cut like this. Of course, as Adam points out, the slightly weird Keidanren family planning proposal did exist before and there may be some real desire to try it out as an experiment, but I suspect that it’s more of a smokescreen to make de-facto salary reductions more palatable.

  14. Adamu Says:

    For more awesomeness refer to the Kim Jong Il manga:
    http://www.amazon.co.jp/%E3%83%9E%E3%83%B3%E3%82%AC%E9%87%91%E6%AD%A3%E6%97%A5%E5%85%A5%E9%96%80-%E6%8B%89%E8%87%B4%E5%9B%BD%E5%AE%B6%E5%8C%97%E6%9C%9D%E9%AE%AE%E3%81%AE%E7%9C%9F%E5%AE%9F-%E6%9D%8E-%E5%8F%8B%E6%83%85/dp/4870315750/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1233103515&sr=8-1

  15. Young James Says:

    The only reason I can think of for the current French demographics is the major state-backed child daycare. It’s easy to have children, and it’s (semi) easy for women to get back to work shortly after because of all the daycare facilities.
    Those daycare facilities have a catch though : they all close at like 18:30-19:00, so they require the father/mother to leave work at a reasonable time.

    This seems a likely answer, but i would be willing to bet that 35 hour work weeks and a tax policy that subsidizes families who have a third child helps.

    Personally, I suspect this is really more of an attempt to cut costs during the recession. Since Canon can’t easily eliminate full-time positions and they can’t reduce their hours in a normal way, they have to resort to a roundabout cut like this. Of course, as Adam points out, the slightly weird Keidanren family planning proposal did exist before and there may be some real desire to try it out as an experiment, but I suspect that it’s more of a smokescreen to make de-facto salary reductions more palatable.

    While i also think this is a veiled move, I think its important to realize that without a worker’s movement demanding higher wages/lower hours, the Keidanren and the government are among the only groups who could effectively work to make such changes possible.

  16. Adamu Says:

    Well it’s not like there isn’t a labor movement, but if we are talking the white collar workforce, I don’t think a lot of those are unionized, same as in the US. But as for the unionized workforce, you’ll notice that when the newspaper interviews the head of Keidanren, they will print an interview with the head of Rengo right next to it. They are working up to the spring wage negotiations aka Shunto.

    Rengo is most certainly more conciliatory than some big labor groups elsewhere (as far as I can see they are more or less silent about the long hrs, but thats far less a problem in the manufacturing sector), but at the same time Keidanren is comparatively benign as opposed to business lobbies in the US, for instance.

    What’s disappointing about Rengo is that they are seeking higher base pay for seishain while explicitly opposing reforms to the seishain system.

  17. Anon Says:

    If you’ll take an anonymous tipster’s word for it, I can confirm that Canon employees do indeed go home on time rather than just sit around working in the dark (unlike, it’s true, other companies I have knowledge of that implement similar lights-off policies). They are really strict about their “No zangyo days,” to the point where if somebody simply HAS to stay behind, they are required to pick a different day to not work overtime on, or so I hear.

    Also, the Canon employees who have explained it to me have framed it as general a work-life balance thing a la what the Ministry has been promoting for the past few years, rather than a specific “now you can have more kids!” thing.

  18. Matt Says:

    I wonder why Canon has been the first to act.

    Tradition?

  19. Matt Says:

    Less flippantly, Canon mention GHQ and a bunch of similar initiatives since in this press release from last year. Programs like this aren’t new for them. (No idea how they’ve historically played out in practice, obviously.)

  20. Henry in Kamakura Says:

    Give Canon credit where it’s due, it could be a genuine effort to alleviate the low birth rate, and while sceptics would insist it is a publicity stunt that takes advantage of an issue close to home for a lot of people, they must be given credit for trying to lead the way and hope that other companies join in.

    How many of you lot have actually worked in a Japanese company ? I don’t mean the JET program either..
    As someone unfortunate enough to have worked in several, I witnessed people caught up in some kind of invisible matrix that demanded they
    stay behind and work longer and longer. Some were obviously earning a good 10 man a month extra through overtime, others preferred work to home life, and others saw putting in the hours as the only way to stay ahead of the herd and gain promotion several years down the line.

    Those white papers are 5 years old and while worth a cursory glance don’t reveal much except the usual rationalizing backed up by some dubious statistics. A problem like a falling birth rate can’t be dealt with by giving a few hundred housewives a questionnaire – it requires brutal honesty and for people to acknowledge something is badly wrong.

    It is on a scale of something like the world running out of honey bees or the gulf stream coming unstuck – something badly out of sync. When a coutry’s women decide they don’t want to have babies anymore there is some serious soul-searching to be done rather than just saying “well our houses are too small and our husbands won’t help out” …sorry but it’s more ingrained than that in the biorhythm of the nation.

    The main reason to applaud Canon though is that they are trailblazing a path out of the horrible working conditions Japanese people have to face – work all week, sleep at weekends and then a shitty five day holiday in obon to Hawaii or somewhere equally grim. On the 11th day, God made Japan and gave them the longest lifespan, and to make it fair also gave them the worst working lives of anywhere in the world to balance it out.

    That’s not to say though that there won’t be a 駆け込み出産boom in 6 years time, when western IVF technology and hospitals adapt to 38 year olds having their first babies.