(c) 2013, The Yomiuri Shimbun.

(c) 2013, The Yomiuri Shimbun.

TOKYO _The labor ministry has started a crackdown on about 4,000 "black companies" that force young employees to work extremely long hours for minimal pay, a step aimed at ending this exploitative business practice and improving their treatment.

If gross labor law violations are detected during the monthlong crackdown, the ministry plans to send papers to prosecutors and publicize the names of the offending companies.

The crackdown is intended to help workers like the 26-year-old Tokyo man who joined an apparel trading company after graduating from university in the spring of 2011 and soon found himself in a hellish working environment. His boss yelled at him almost daily, and fists flew from time to time.

"If you don't reach your sales targets, don't take holidays," he was reportedly told. "You're just a waste of space."

The man was forced to work until late every night, and often came into the office on weekends. Although he clocked up more than 100 hours of overtime every month, he did not receive overtime pay. The company hired five new employees every year, but they would soon quit.

Eventually, the man could no longer stand the working environment. In autumn 2012, he resigned.

"I hope the crackdown can prevent even a single case like mine from happening elsewhere," he said.

This sentiment is shared by a man in his 20s who joined a software company in Tokyo last spring.

Soon after he started working, he noticed his overtime pay was set to be slashed. When he was looking for a job, he was told the base monthly salary would be 200,000 yen (about $2,037). But after joining the firm, he found that the base salary was actually 150,000 yen, with 50,000 yen designated as overtime pay. Furthermore, when he takes paid leave, his overtime pay component is cut accordingly. The man wants to leave, but cannot take that step because he does not have enough savings to fall back on.

"I really hope the government comes down hard on these companies," he said.

Although there is no clear-cut definition of a black company, they typically tend to hire staff and then make them work so hard that most feel compelled to resign. The Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry labels them "companies suspected of treating young workers as expendable." The crackdown will involve searches of companies whose staff turnover rate is higher than average, and those where there have been reports of rampant unpaid overtime.

Nevertheless, eliminating black companies is easier said than done. Simply having a high number of new staff and workers who resign is not illegal in itself.

Haruki Konno, head of the Posse nonprofit organization, which supports victims of black companies, said exploited workers should take action to alleviate their situation.

"Even in cases that the state cannot fully deal with, the parties involved can hire a lawyer and seek a resolution," Konno said. "They should use external parties, such as groups that can introduce private support organizations."

The ministry plans to set up a permanent consultation phone line next fiscal year to field inquiries about black companies.

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