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Japan's unwanted IT workers dumped in 'forcing-out rooms'

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Some of Japan’s biggest technology companies send certain employees to “boredom" or "forcing-out" rooms where they’re forced to undertake menial tasks designed to make them quit.

A New York Times report detailed the experience of 51-year-old Sony employee Shusaku Tani who refused to take early retirement after his position at the Sony Sendai Technology Center was eliminated.

With no job left for Tani and others like him at the firm, Sony decided to put them in an oidashibeya – which can be translated as “forcing-out room” or less accurately “boredom room”.

Here he apparently browses the web and reads books all day before preparing a daily report on his activities and leaving for home.

In other cases, skilled employees have apparently been forced to undertake data entry or repetitive assembly line work. The idea appears to be to make work so boring, uninspiring and shameful that the employee eventually gives in and resigns.

Sony pointed out to the paper that it does give counselling to such employees to help find them new jobs in the company or elsewhere.

It’s unclear how extensive this practice is in Japan although the NYT referred to local media reports claiming that Panasonic, NEC and Toshiba, among others, use the technique.

Boring workers to career death may be a symptom of labour laws that make it difficult for corporates to lay off staff without good reason.

“We consider that the biggest reason why the Japanese electronics industry is getting weak is the strict employment policy in Japan,” Gartner analyst Hiroyuki Shimizu told The Reg.

“It is almost impossible for Japanese companies to flexibly restructure their human resources. It is also difficult to close factories in Japan, as a lot of people are laid off.”

Over the past 20 years, company execs have therefore been focussed on technology areas where they have the most human resources and assets rather than where they can differentiate, he explained.

Shimizu gave the example of the Sony Walkman, which the firm is still developing even though Apple has the dominant global market share in that area.

“Sony keeps focusing on the development of sound quality, even though many users hate Sony’s music content management software ‘X-Application’,” he said.

“It is difficult for Japanese companies like Sony to neglect the audio and visual quality engineering, as there are so many super engineers in these segments. On the other hand, they do not have enough engineering resources for the application software development.”

As the NYT pointed out, current prime minister Shinzo Abe is looking to change Japan’s labour laws to make it easier to fire staff, although he’s treading carefully and well he might, given the large number of voters who still believe in a “job for life”.

Japanese electronics makers can't blame inflexible employment law for all their woes over the past two decades, however.

Cheap competition from elsewhere in Asia and the commoditisation of consumer electronics have also contributed to their decline. ®

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