Inside Amazon Japan: How Some of the Employees Saw the Dark Side of the E-tailer

By The Weekly Toyo Keizai
March 09,2016
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(Photo by Fumishige Ogata)

Yuuta Takada was seriously thinking about jumping off the platform right when the train that he uses to commute to his workplace at Amazon Japan came into the station.

This was not the first time Yuuta was seized with an impulse to commit suicide. In fact, this urge has emerged in him repeatedly, day after day, for the last few months. It is only after hearing his inner voice say, “Think what will happen to your family after you are gone,” that he has been able to overcome this almost irresistible temptation every time.

Yuuta used to go to work by riding the first train that departed from his home station a little after 5:00 a.m., and he would come back from work on the last train that left the station near his workplace. A few months ago, he was transferred to a new department, and was working desperately to become accustomed to his newly assigned duties as quickly as possible.

One of the main reasons why he felt so desperate to accelerate his learning process was the huge amount of pressure he was under from his immediate manager, who frequently reminded him, “Every year at Amazon, we fire workers who have been performing poorly. That might be you, too.”

"Impaired worker"

Soon, Yuuta became so stressed out that he had to see a doctor. He was diagnosed with depression, so he decided to take a two-month leave. However, after returning to work, he was “power-harassed” by the same immediate manager, over and over again.

Worse, he was told by both the HR department and the industrial physician that he was classified as an “impaired worker,” which meant that he would only be paid one-third of what he was receiving before his leave. This was obviously unfair to Yuuta, who was not a government-certified person with disabilities.

Yuuta could not cope with the unending harassment anymore and had to take another long leave. When he returned this time, he was permitted to transfer to a different department to start anew; however, in this new workplace, he was hard-pressed again to improve his performance and was literally threatened that he would end up losing his job if he did not improve as much as expected.

He then realized that he was targeted as a subject of the company’s Performance Improvement Plan (PIP). PIP is a process aimed at giving employees who have been identified as unsatisfactory in their performance, attendance or behavior the opportunity to improve to a level considered acceptable by their supervisors. If the employees fail to improve to that level, they are subject to further action that may include termination, in the worst case.

Yuuta searched for reliable outside sources that he could consult about his difficult situation. He found the Tokyo Managers’ Union, and quickly became a member of this independent general workers’ union, known especially for its bargaining power to settle labor-management disputes in favor of victims of harassment and undue dismissal. Through the help of this union, Yuuta was finally able to make the leaders in his workplace stop coercing him to follow unreasonable orders to work excessively.

In another case, involving worker Taro Ito, his nightmarish days in the workplace began sixth months after joining Amazon Japan. His immediate manager started calling on him regularly for one-on-one meetings.

14 Leadership Principles

Every time Taro met with his immediate boss, he was reprimanded for his low performance and productivity, despite the fact that he was ordered to perform assigned tasks without receiving any preliminary training. Throughout these meetings, which were always held behind closed doors, Taro had to listen to the immediate manager scold him in a loud, intimidating voice about how his work behavior was not aligned with the 14 “Leadership Principles” that all Amazon employees were obliged to follow.

Then, one day, Taro was asked to leave the company.When he rejected this proposal, he was ordered to register in PIP. Fearing that this process may give the company a good excuse to fire him, he did not sign the papers and consulted Tokyo Managers’ Union for advice. Like Yuuta, Taro also joined this union immediately to receive official support.

The union sent a list of 150 questions to Amazon Japan to answer in protection of Taro’s rights. After repeated collective bargaining, Amazon’s management finally agreed to sign the settlement agreement.

In November 2015, a labor union was established exclusively for the workers of Amazon Japan. “We know that Amazon sometimes uses PIP as a tool to release workers who fail to meet the extremely high performance targets set by this program," says Tsuyoshi Suzuki, executive committee chairperson of the Tokyo Managers’ Union. “We suspect that the employment regulations of the company may include provisions that conflict with Japanese labor-related laws.”

Suzuki continues, “The problem is that Amazon often does not explicitly compel underperforming workers to resign from their jobs, so it is very difficult for us to accuse management of firing people illegally. What is cunning about Amazon is that the managers give the workers very tough assignments that are virtually impossible to fulfill. They get these workers ‘cornered’ to take the responsibility for not being able to achieve their targets. In reality, many of these workers become too worn out, both mentally and physically, to continue working, and decide to leave the company on their own, even before their supervisors tacitly suggest that they do so.”

Last August, The New York Times ran an investigative story titled “Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace” that revealed the harsh labor environment in which this giant e-commerce company has been forcing some of its employees to work. This report was based on inside information gathered through an interview survey conducted of over 100 respondents who are working, or have worked, for Amazon, including an ex-employee who commented that, during two years of service in the publishing department, “Nearly every person I worked with, I saw cry at their desk.”

In the spring of 2014, the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) announced that Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos was selected as the winner of the “World’s Worst Bosses” poll. Along with this announcement, the ITUC criticized the company for “treating its employees as if they are robots,” pointing out, for example, that Amazon logistics staff have to walk as much as 24 kilometers (15 miles) to complete their day’s job in the warehouse.

The improvement plan

 In the case of Shogo Kikuchi, the order to improve his performance came out of the blue. One night two years ago, while he was getting ready to go home, his immediate manager abruptly told him to submit his improvement plan the next day. Shogo asked his boss what kind of improvements should be included in this plan, because he had no idea what was expected from him. The immediate manager simply replied, “Anything is okay. Just get it done by tomorrow.”

With no specific instructions provided, Shogo felt lost, not knowing what to do, other than to get himself started right away with the preparation of the requested document. But because he got so absorbed in thinking about what to write, he missed the last train and had to stay in a hotel near the station that night.

The next morning, he showed the boss the improvement plan that he hastily had prepared overnight. The response from the immediate boss was cold and blunt: “This is not the kind of improvement I want to see. Show me where you can cut more costs.”

Shogo later found out that he was selected twice as the target of a Performance Improvement Action Plan (PIAP), which was a preliminary step before entering PIP. Using the PIAP template, Shogo prepared his improvement plan in several specific areas in which he was identified as unsatisfactory. Based on the action plan he submitted, the supervisor checked his rate of achievement in each of these areas every week.

Shogo was then invited to a meeting attended not only by his immediate manager, but also by an HR representative. Remembering the advice he received from the labor union, he secretly recorded the conversation he had with the two in this meeting. Among many things brought up in this meeting, the voice of the HR personnel telling Shogo that he should leave the company was also clearly captured on tape.

When the representatives from the labor union and management met to discuss Shogo’s situation, in the beginning, management completely denied the possibility of any employees being encouraged to retire by company representatives. A union member then mentioned the existence of a recording of everything talked about in that meeting held between Shogo, his immediate manager and the HR personnel. This became a decisive blow, and management backed down. Since then, Shogo never heard anyone in the company suggest that he quit.

What Yuuta, Taro and Shogo have respectively gone through may be exceptional cases in Amazon Japan, which currently has approximately 3,500 employees on its payroll. But they may not be, if we consider the comment from one of the employees who experienced PIP, who said, “There are actually not many people in the company who know about PIP. When I was placed in this process, I was told not to tell anybody in the company about it.”

We also confirmed through our survey that the employees who have ever been harassed by their supervisors share the same impression that the company was using the “Leadership Principles” as an arbitrary means to have the employees deemed “useless” to be “cornered” to the point that they would make up their minds to find different employers.

Whether Amazon Japan will become more open about communicating to the public how its employees are being treated in the company is up to the management to decide. But if that is not going to happen any soon, it’s up to the media to continue investigating.

*All names that appear in this article are fictitious for the purpose of protecting privacy.