Japan’s Foreign Workers Face Job Struggles Amid Pandemic

Temporary furloughs, workforce downsizing and mass layoffs have become unwelcome familiarities for foreign workers in Japan

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As Japan entered 2020, the Tokyo Olympics beckoned and the tourism industry rode the crest of a record-smashing wave. The number of foreign workers had also risen for the 12th straight year to over 1.6 million, with company execs transitioning to major Japanese headquarters, English teachers and construction workers snapping up easy access visas, and a burgeoning cohort of young entrepreneurs looking to capitalize on the gradually shifting landscape of tech start-ups.

Japan was reasserting itself as a dominant economic force on the world stage and a cosmopolitan nation with a global reach. Then came Covid-19.

Japan has come through the first wave of the pandemic with a relatively low infection rate. The economy however, and certain job sectors therein, buckled under the ensuing pressure. According to The Asahi Shimbun, 11.4% of Japan’s workforce were out of work in April – if you include the 4.2 million furloughed employees.

In a perverse twist of fate, some people’s workloads shot through the roof: just ask doctors, journalists, supermarket clerks or the folks delivering your stay-at-home Amazon purchases how boring their lockdowns were.

But for the rest, terms like temporary furloughs, workforce downsizing, mass layoffs, insufficient pay and the Hello Work employment office became unwelcome familiarities. Unfortunately, being an expat was no boon to job security.

Tourism the First Domino to Fall

One permanent resident working in the tourism industry, who preferred to remain anonymous, felt the pandemic’s wrath early, losing her job at the end of March. “Inquiries for trips to Japan were drying up when the Diamond Princess cruise ship story was circulating in the international media. Then when the virus started to make its way west, they disappeared completely; my company had no more cashflow, and I was laid off with near-immediate effect. Everything changed overnight,” she said.

Though tourism has been a lynchpin of the Japanese economy for the last several years, the declaration of a global pandemic and mass consumer travel bans were always going to upset the apple cart – unsurprisingly, most of the 140 small Japanese business that had filed for bankruptcy by mid-May operated in tourism-related fields.

“Some employers take advantage of migrant workers.”

Tourism’s downfall merely served as a harbinger of worse things to come. Makoto Iwahashi from Posse, a Japanese labor NPO dealing with workplace discrimination, said, “We received 342 calls and emails [between March 1 and May 31] from foreign workers, and many were either fired, or placed on leave without the legally mandated 60% pay. Some employers take advantage of migrant workers thinking that since they speak little Japanese or don’t know Japanese labor law, they would not be able to contact labor unions, NPOs or lawyers for help.”

This discrimination stems from Japan’s archaic corporate culture, which still favors patriarchal structures founded on principles of seniority and nationality. Yet even those free from the rigid corporate system, felt the economic shockwaves caused by Covid-19.

The Fragility of Contract Work

The fragile foundations upon which contract work in Japan is built, was one of the pandemic’s most enduring distress calls. There are an estimated 4.62 million freelance contractors working in Japan, many of whom are foreign nationals: construction workers, IT engineers, journalists, artists and English teachers. The number was set to increase following a government policy last year aimed at providing over 300,000 special work visas.

The term freelance has come to symbolize some perceived ideal of work-life balance: a definition ascribed to those no longer subject to the unpredictable whims of their corporate overlords. Yet as someone who plies their trade that way, every day of the pandemic felt more like a roll of the dice, often landing somewhere between a double-edged sword and an existential crisis.

“I found that frustrating and scary.”

Zoria Petkoska, another Tokyo-based freelancer, says, “Freelance writers have been affected disproportionately. Even when it’s not travel writing, companies are trying to save money by cutting off freelancers and doing more things with staff writers. So even when not impacted by Covid-19, they’re bracing for an incoming financial crisis. I found that frustrating and scary.”

But at least writing is a work-from-home pursuit. Dimitri Trush, a long-time Tokyo resident who organizes music events in his spare time, spoke of the troubles experienced by Japan’s nomadic musicians. He says some high-level foreign musicians haven’t received an income since March. “I have friend who is a full-time performer and he lost all opportunities until the end of the year,” says Trush.

Policy changes are on the horizon to address freelancer instability, but one has to wonder if it’s too little too late.

The New Normal for a Contract Worker

Recently, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe stressed the importance of providing better protection for freelancers not currently covered by labor-related laws. However, with 60% of contract workers claiming they were subject to power harassment in a 2019 survey, it raises the question of why it took a health crisis to force the administration’s hand.

The new guidelines, which are slated for March 2021, will give freelancers protection under Japan’s Labor Standards Act if they’re deemed to have an employer-employee relationship with a contracting company. Likewise, contracting companies will be punished in accordance with antitrust laws if they fail to provide a written contract, forego or delay adequate payments or make unilateral changes to agreements.

The government’s finalized report with more concrete details has been pushed back until the end of the year.

Finding Employment in a Jobless World

On a more positive note, certain job sectors are mapping out pathways to recovery.

With domestic travel set to revive imminently, the government’s Go to Travel campaign – offering voucher-based discounts to travelers – will help keep smaller businesses afloat and allow them to rehire temporarily laid-off staff.

Equally, with Tokyo now allowing gatherings of up to 1,000 people, small- to mid-sized performances and events can help musicians, actors and creatives in the capital regain some of their income. While the perseverance of tech start-ups and the introduction of remote work to Japanese society, is likely to accelerate demand in the IT sector.

Furthermore, in an interview with Mika Ohbayashi of the Renewable Energy Institute earlier this month, she spoke of the potential to employ laborers in the construction of renewable energy plants if the government backpedals on fossil fuels in the wake of Covid-19 – much as Pakistan used displaced workers to plant trees as part of its new green strategy.

For many in the workforce these are times of unprecedented instability – predictably, Japan’s expats have felt excessively marginalized. But while the glass may seem half-empty, the first signs of post-pandemic progress are upon us, and that at least is cause for optimism.

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