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East-West Clash: U.S. Workers At Japanese, Korean Firms Claim Job Bias

July 26, 1988

Undated (AP) _ Roy Carlson had a good job, a huge house and a stable life in Arizona when he traded it all for a dream offer in Silicon Valley. He thought he was kicking off a fresh new career. Two months later, he was out of work.

Mikel Duffy hoped to climb the ladder of high finance with a new job at a New York export-import firm. A year later, convinced she’d never reach the first rung, she quit.

Two tales of job troubles. One West Coast, one East Coast. One veteran, one beginner. But both are among the small but increasing number of Americans who’ve accused their Japanese or Korean employers of job discrimination.

The explosion of Asian-owned companies has created jobs for Americans but has also generated complaints from workers claiming they were rejected, denied promotion or laid off because of their color, race, sex or ethnic group.

″You should be evaluated for your performance - not what you look like, who you are or your race or sex,″ said Duffy, one of three women who’ve sued C. Itoh & Co. (America) Inc., a Japanese company, for discrimination .

Some say cultural clashes arise because the Japanese are unaccustomed to minority workers and female managers. Others call it intentional bias.

Some complaints are in court. The government is investigating others. Some probes have led to financial settlements and new policies.

Honda of America Manufacturing Inc., for example, agreed this spring to pay $6 million to 377 blacks and women after a 3 1/2 -year-long investigation by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission concluded the company should have hired them sooner. Honda admitted no wrongdoing.

Most complaints involve Japanese companies, simply because of their dominance of the U.S. market. The cases represent a tiny fraction of 190,000 Americans working for Japanese-owned firms, a number expected to rise to 900,000 by 1995. As of 1986, 539 Japanese manufacturing firms had been established in the United States.

Many business experts insist the Japanese generally are good bosses, known for innovative management and fierce loyalty from workers.

Still, tensions have surfaced when East meets West in the workplace. Some say it’s because the Japanese live in a homogeneous society and male-oriented work world.

″They import their own cultural bias,″ said lawyer Lewis Steel, whose firm has been involved in three cases in which women have charged Japanese companies with job discrimination.

″They run their corporations (here) in a way that really mirrors the structure in Japan,″ he said. ″They have to adapt to our culture. ... It is not easy for them to do that. It was not easy for companies in the South to rid themselves of overt discrimination.″

Labor experts note that the record of U.S. firms isn’t unblemished. In 1983, for instance, General Motors settled a race and sex discrimination case for $42 million, the EEOC said.

Bias complaints, some pending for two years, include:

-Hirings. Two former executives of NEC Electronics Inc., a microprocessor and semiconductor firm, claim they were unfairly demoted. They assert they’d advised against a policy of dismissing Americans to make room for Japanese workers. When the company removed them from the board of directors, they filed suit and then were fired, according to their breach-of-contract suit.

″They had opposed discrimination and they were retaliated against. They were whistleblowers,″ said attorney Robert Kahn. An NEC lawyer denies the claims.

-Firings. Nine former workers, mostly engineers, have sued Hyundai Electronics America, claiming they were hired to begin a computer division in California but lost their jobs when it closed months later in 1984, although Koreans were transferred within the organization.

The EEOC has also sued the Korean-owned firm, charging discrimination in favor of Korean workers. A lawyer for Hyundai denies the charges, noting the Koreans were trainees, in America temporarily.

Ex-employees aren’t mollified. ″I disrupted my life to join them,″ said Carlson, adding he was laid off two months after being guaranteed job security. ″They got whatever they wanted from us, and they let us go.″

-Promotions. The EEOC in New York is investigating claims Japanese men get preferential treatment and women have no promotion opportunities at The Nikko Securities Co. International Inc., said attorney Susan Ritz, who is representing three women.

In the separate case against C. Itoh, Duffy said she was hired as a clerk two years ago and soon given other duties. When when she requested relief from clerical work to tackle new tasks, she said she was told ″in a fatherly, reassuring manner, ’No, no, it’s OK, if you feel you can’t handle this, you can go back to your old job and we can get a man to do yours.‴

The EEOC, however, found no discrimination at C. Itoh and ″anyone who possesses the proper job-related skills can be promoted,″ said lawyer Bill Carmell, representing the company. ″I get a little frustrated (with the attitude) since we’re a Japanese company, we must have mistreated women.″

Another sex discrimination case was resolved in a 1987 multimillion-dollar settlement involving Sumitomo Corp. of America and 13 female clerical workers. Sumitomo stipulated it hadn’t violated laws.

That settlement ended 10 years of litigation, including a 1982 Supreme Court decision holding that subsidiaries of Japanese firms in the United States are bound by American laws barring job bias.

Three Japanese automakers also have come under EEOC scrutinty. Nissan is discussing settlement of a race, sex and age discrimination charge. Toyota last year agreed to add five minority workers at two California plants and pay $47,880 after a race and national origin discrimination probe. Honda in 1987 agreed to pay $457,111 to 85 people following an age bias investigation.

In March, Honda settled a case after the EEOC claimed its hiring practices were discriminatory. In its early years, Honda, based in Marysville, Ohio, hired only people who lived within a 20-mile radius of the plant. The radius was later increased to 30 miles, and the policy was also applied when Honda opened an engine plant at Anna, Ohio.

The 30-mile limit excluded potential workers from Columbus, 35 miles away, which has the region’s largest minority population - about 24 percent.

Honda last fall expanded its hiring area to 17 counties and agreed to recruit and advertise in Columbus and implement new training programs.

Experts say the Japanese will adjust quickly, but Carlson, now a consultant, feels cheated.

″If I was going to Korea and opened up a little business, solicited help from senior technology people and closed it all down and left them stranded, my guess is ... an iron boot would remove me summarily,″ he said.

End Adv Tuesday PMs July 26

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