Three dismissed IBM Japan workers suing in Tokyo District Court.

Very interesting. The story is here, or here, but in Japanese.

The gist is that IBM’s new president for the (wholly-owned) IBM Japan unit, Martin Jetter, has instituted a policy of restructuring since he arrived in Tokyo in May. What is described in the article are American-style summary dismissals, which is extremely curtailed under Japanese Labor Standards Law. (You basically can’t do that sort of thing to a regular employee or “sei sha-in”. This is why the article headlines it as “rokku autto gata” or “lock out type”.)

Three of the people who were victimized in this way filed suit in the Tokyo District Court on October 15. Their ages were between 40 and 53. They seek for the court to recognize their rights in their jobs, and to their jobs, and monetary compensation for the fact that IBM has shut them out of their jobs. (Basically, the damages you get when you are sei sha-in in Japan.)

It appears to be understood in the Japanese media, that Martin Jetter is a “cost cutter”, sent by IBM in New York, to Tokyo, to reduce costs. In the service industry, what reduce costs mostly means is fire people.

From news accounts, it sounds like IBM Japan has not done all the other things it must do, under Japanese law, beforehand, before it eliminates jobs. And there is a list.

Aside from the obvious money motive, I wonder why the company has chosen the avenue it has to make these moves.

[Update: Here is the refresher, on Japanese labor law, from a post earlier this year.]

[Update #2: This week, the dismissals elicited a protest (JP) from a labor union operating in IBM Japan, that is affiliated with Zenroren, a left-leaning confederation of workers’ rights groups.]

[Update #3 12/3/12: In a speech in the Japanese Diet, Shii Kazuo, says this about lockout dismissals:

IBM Japan gives sudden dismissal notices to targeted workers without valid reasons and kicks them out of the company premises, dubbed “lockout dismissals”.

Shii condemns such a nefarious way of firing as an abuse of the employer’s right of dismissal, demanding that the government issue a warning to the company to stop conducting forcible dismissals and fulfill its corporate social responsibility. ]


7 Replies to “Three dismissed IBM Japan workers suing in Tokyo District Court.”

  1. The articles headline of “lockout” doesn’t refer to American style dismissals. It just refers to how efficient the security has gotten at modern companies. Most HR departments in modern offices (which would include a place like IBM, but also includes almost every single Japanese and non-Japanese IT-based tenant), have a “insta-kill HR switch” software mechanism that, given just an employees id name/number, can automatically batch job disable all digital security badges (needed to open any doors), disable access to all software internal and external, block internal and externess access (via VPN etc) to company owned resources, cancel your corporate credit card, and remote disable your corporate smartphone.

    They need this “lightning switch” because misappropriating (or damaging) internal digital data/secrets/info, on the scale of gigabytes/terabytes, by using a concealable USB key or DVD burner or portable pocket HD, can now be done in mere minutes… seconds in some cases. It’s different from the old days in the 90s and 80s when stealing stuff from your company required boxes, a weekend in the middle of the night, and a large car or truck.

    It’s harsh, but if they didn’t do it this way, and an employee stole a huge amount of info just even a couple hours after the official termination, the company would be sued by clients or shareholders for being negligent (i.e “terminated employee, who still had access to building and databases, makes off with internal list of 100 million credit card numbers / source code with millions / fill in the blank here”). The vast majority (99.9%) of employees, even when terminated, due the honest and right thing. But it only takes one to succumb to temptation to do an amazing amount of damage compared to the pre-digital days. This harms not just the company, but the employees who rely on that company. We all know from the news the companies that were brought down by just one rogue employee.

    Thus, any IT company is going to minimize/eliminate that window from the time you figure out you’re doomed and are not your rational self due to stress/panic and may be tempted to do something rash under duress (we’re talking white collar crime here, not automatic weapon crime) until the time you are “locked out.”

    The general pattern is 30 minutes before closing… though some companies prefer to do the early very first thing in the morning and have you leave before the workday starts — most people who are told they have an a mandatory unusual meeting at the end of the day usually know in their hearts what the meeting is for, and thus may have “digitally prepared” for it.

    The actual legality of the terminations (whether it was for performance reasons and if those reasons were measured fairly and if the employee was made aware of the performance problems in a reasonable timeframe and manner) is a completely separate issue, and one that needs debate. Providing the paper trail documenting the performance was there, and a system existing for evaluating the performance and giving timely periodic feedback is there and done, it’s perfectly legal to terminate somebody in Japan for performance reasons.

    But the style of final “termination notice” (30 mins notice then digital and door security lockout) is not illegal in Japan. With modern technology, that’s pretty normal these days. I’m guessing these three men in the forties and fifties referenced in your article hadn’t kept up with the times and learned how the digital age made modern office security so tight and efficient.

    The article says that the labor union says one person in July, nine in September, and one in October were terminated for performance reasons they dispute. They also claim that they’ve heard “rumors” that IBM JP was trying to trim their workforce from 14,000 to 10,000 in 3 years. If that rumor is true, then “cost cutter” Martin Jetter should be shown the door as he isn’t close to meeting his target: he needs to fire 111 people per month to make his target. He’s literally only achieving anywhere from 8%/month on a good month to less than 1%/month of his cost cutting restructuring. Just saying.

    1. When a headline reads, “lockout type”, it refers to the fact that the employee is not being allowed to work the job. This expression predates recent security practices in the software industry, or in companies that rely on computer software. I know that “lockout” is a phrase in software; but here, the writer is referring to a type of employment denial where the employer is not letting the employee continue to work.

      You are right that the story in the article discusses how the employee was locked out of IBM’s system and asked to leave by 5:36 pm. (Why it’s 5:36 is its own story.) So, half-an-hour from 5 pm. But that is its own distinct idea or usage, from “lockout type”. The phrase is well understood in Japanese union circles. A flaw of our contemporary search engine world is that you have to know what to search on (i.e. have the pre-existing knowledge) in order to find the correct answer. Simply because IBM Japan is very much in the news right now, referencing the phrase, doesn’t mean that a “lockout type” dismissal, where the dismissed employee is locked out of the computer system, is solely or even majorly what happens in this kind of unlawful termination.

      As far as whether IBM Japan will be successful with the headquarters’ push to reduce headcount: you are right that, by simple math, less than a dozen people per month won’t reduce 14,000 to 10,000 any time soon. My guess is that the dismissals are meant to set an example to the 14,000, though. If one’s remedy is going to have to be the court system, which in Japan can take years and years, the typical employee may simply conclude that it’s the easier course just to cave in with whatever bullying is present in the employment relationship. (In the Deep South of America, not everyone was lynched, but a few were sufficient to keep the Jim Crow system in place up until about 1970. There are countless other examples of targeting a few to intimidate or terrorize the many.)

      Technology is always changing, and that certainly was the case after the American New Deal reforms were brought to Japan after World War II. Japanese companies understood that the costs of training, re-training, were part of the cost of hiring employees. They didn’t fire people who couldn’t use a rotary telephone—they taught people how to. There’s nothing particularly special about nowadays and tech, except there’s more.

      1. You’re right that the word “lockout” is used in the labor relations tactics terminology that way. For example, the NHL club owners are currently “locking out” its players while they negotiate with the NHLPA.ロックアウト

        However, it is not called a “lockout”, either in Japan or anywhere else, after an employee has received an official notice of employment termination, which were the cases with this IBM article — no matter what the former employees may think. It’s called being fired. And yes, once you’re fired, there is no expectation that you have employee access or privileges.

        1. I disagree.

          There is at least some evidence, online, that “lockout” is being used to describe the situation where an employee is either summarily or, in a short amount of time, separated from his/her job.

          At minimum, these examples are describing situations where the right to a job and the right in a job is being unilaterally withdrawn. This is all separate from whether the employee gets to use their keyboard.

          The law in Japan is this: unless the employee is under a valid, fixed term (or, term-limited) contract, the employee has a right to continue in a job. This right is not absolute, but the reasons to deny that employment are so circumscribed, by law, that what is going on in these companies with “lockouts” is more than just an unfair labor practice—it’s illegal.

          The excuse the one company, above, offered is that the locked-out employees’ skills weren’t up to date. But that reason may or may not pass muster with Tokyo District Court. (It probably won’t, unless the employer can show that it offered remedial or supplemental training, and the employee refused.)

          The JMIU is right to see and highlight this as one more trick to try and impose at-will employment in a labor system that states at-will employment is illegal.

          1. Er… if that’s the definition you inferred from those pages, then I’d recommend laying off the machine translation and getting a human that can actually read Japanese to help you.

            1. Well, let’s look at one, in machine translation (i.e. third party translation):


              Here, where the phrase “lockout type” is being used, it clearly has nothing to do with whether someone is losing their access code to a computer. It fairly describes the situation where a “sei sha’in” is being greased to be shoved out of a job, using the threat of an available pile of go-away money that shrinks as the person does not accept the “offer”. (This is clearly breach, because the go-away money is less than what the employee already has under Labor Standards Law.)

              There is nothing in the machine translation that references a computer system or a pass card being deactivated, as the reason for the term “lockout type” being used.

  2. “Providing the paper trail documenting the performance was there, and a system existing for evaluating the performance and giving timely periodic feedback is there and done, it’s perfectly legal to terminate somebody in Japan for performance reasons.”

    I’m not sure this is true in Japan. I don’t think you can lose your job merely for inadequate performance. Passive incompetence is not sufficient reason to fire someone in Japan. That’s why companies induce workers to quit with large payments, or transfer them to subsidiaries (which in itself the worker has a right to refuse). Or the company can close down the whole office or factory, which is a reason that Japanese courts have accepted.

    Of course, that’s not what Google will tell its employees.

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