Understanding "Service Zangyou"(サビ残) in Japan: The Culture of Unpaid Overtime

What is "service zangyou"(サービス残業:サビ残)?

In Japan, a phenomenon known as "service zangyou"(サービス残業:サビ残) highlights a unique aspect of the country's work culture. The term refers to "unpaid overtime,"(未払い残業) a common practice where employees work beyond their contracted hours without additional compensation which is illegal. This concept is deeply ingrained in Japanese work ethics and social expectations, reflecting both historical influences and modern-day workplace dynamics.

The Roots of Service Zangyou

The practice of service zangyou can be traced back to Japan’s rapid post-war economic growth when long working hours were synonymous with loyalty and dedication to one's company. Despite modern advances and changes in labor laws, this mindset persists, and working long hours is often seen as a virtue or a necessity for career advancement.Although the boss does not say to do service overtime, it is considered a problem that employees do it by unspoken agreement.

Legal Framework and Cultural Expectations

Legally, Japanese labor laws stipulate that employees should be compensated for overtime. However, the enforcement is lax, and the cultural pressures often lead employees to not claim their overtime pay. Service zangyou thus becomes a tacit requirement in many workplaces, driven by an implicit understanding between employers and employees. This practice is sustained by several factors:

  • Group Harmony: In Japanese culture, wa (harmony) is paramount. Employees might engage in service zangyou to conform to group norms and not to appear disloyal or disruptive.
  • Seniority and Respect: Respecting hierarchy is crucial in Japanese workplaces. Junior employees may feel obligated to mirror the behavior of their seniors, who might also be staying late, regardless of the actual workload.
  • Job Security: In a competitive job market, employees may engage in service zangyou to demonstrate their dedication and secure their positions, especially in industries with precarious employment.

The Impact on Workers

The impact of service zangyou on employees can be profound. It contributes to various issues such as:

  • Work-Life Imbalance: Excessive work hours can lead to a poor balance between personal and professional life, affecting family relationships and personal well-being.
  • Health Concerns: There is an increased risk of physical and mental health problems, including stress-related illnesses and even cases of karoshi (death from overwork).
  • Productivity Decline: Ironically, while service zangyou is intended to increase productivity, it can lead to diminished returns due to fatigue and decreased efficiency over time.

Changing Tides

There is a growing recognition of the problems associated with service zangyou, and both societal attitudes and corporate policies are slowly evolving. Initiatives like "Premium Friday," encouraging employees to leave early once a month, and stricter enforcement of labor laws are steps toward change. Moreover, the younger generation in Japan is increasingly prioritizing work-life balance, challenging the traditional norms of service zangyou.

My own case

Let me talk about my own case. I had been working in a major manufacturing company since around 2001, and while service overtime was not encouraged at that time, many of my seniors considered not submitting overtime requests as a virtue. Fortunately, in large corporations, legal management is thorough, so I have never done service overtime. By 2024, employees of companies known as major corporations in Japan probably have almost eradicated service overtime. However, mid-sized and smaller companies still have a prevalent issue with service overtime, which is considered problematic.

Conclusion

Service zangyou remains a complex issue rooted deeply in Japan's corporate culture. While change is on the horizon, driven by legal reforms and shifting societal values, the transition away from unpaid overtime is gradual. Understanding this practice is crucial for anyone engaging with the Japanese workforce, whether as an employee, a manager, or a business partner. As Japan continues to adapt to global work standards, the practice of service zangyou will likely become a significant focal point in the nation’s dialogue on labor rights and workplace health.

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