Foreign workers in tight spot as plants close

Japanese used to empower laborers, kids

by Tomomi Miura and Tetsuo Watanabe

Kyodo

Successive closures of plants by large domestic manufacturers as part of operational restructuring have left local governments and civilian groups facing serious problems, among them the increase in unemployed foreign workers.

A Japanese-language and business-etiquette class for Japanese-Brazilians was started in Minokamo, Gifu Prefecture, in mid-April.

“We will study hard to live in Japan,” a woman in her 30s, one of about 40 students enrolled in the class, said in Portuguese at the opening ceremony.

Most of the students, including the woman, were former employees of a local plant shuttered by a Sony Corp. subsidiary at the end of March. The closure put more than 1,000 people out of work, the prefectural labor department said.

The program to help Japanese-Brazilians and other foreign residents find jobs is being undertaken by the Japan International Cooperation Center on behalf of the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry. While the class usually kicks off in early May, this year’s program began a month earlier in anticipation of greater demand following the closure of the Sony plant, which began operating in 1981.

Minokamo had relied heavily on the plant as a source of jobs, with the presence of many Japanese-Brazilian workers there boosting the number of foreigners in the city to 7.7 percent of the population, the highest figure in the prefecture as of March.

Last October, Sony announced the decision on the plant’s closure amid deteriorating earnings that resulted in a record group net loss of ¥456.6 billion in fiscal 2011, which ended on March 31, 2012. The firm also sold its U.S. headquarters in New York and a building it owned in Tokyo’s Shinagawa Ward.

In the city of Kani, which is adjacent to Minokamo and where foreigners make up 5.5 percent of the population — the second-highest in Gifu — the Kani International Exchange Association launched a program in 2008 to help children of foreign residents prepare for Japanese high school entrance exams.

According to Mayumi Kakamu, 55, secretary-general of the nonprofit organization, foreign workers’ livelihoods are becoming more precarious as they age and factories close. And unless their children can get proper education, they will follow in the footsteps of their parents.

Children should “master the Japanese language and enter a higher level of schooling so they can think about what they want to do with their lives,” Kakamu said.

Japanese manufacturers hired large numbers of foreign workers to make up for labor shortages. As interpreters were made available at plants, foreign workers were able to function even though they had difficulty communicating in Japanese. The employment of foreign workers also rose because of deregulation by the central government.

But the nation’s economic slowdown and increased international competition forced Sony and many other manufacturers, including Panasonic Corp. and Sharp Corp., to close plants as part of bold restructuring moves needed to survive.

“Foreign laborers have supported Japan’s affluence behind the scenes,” said Yoshimi Kojima, 39, an associate professor at Aichi Shukutoku University who heads a liaison conference launched last December by the Gifu Prefectural Government to support foreign children. “Although the loss of jobs as a result of the economic slump is treated as the individuals’ responsibility, as a society we should create places where they can work.”

In Hamamatsu, Shizuoka Prefecture, foreign workers were successively laid off amid the economic crisis that started in 2008. These layoffs prompted the city to create a program the next year in cooperation with civic groups to help foreign youths get a better grasp of the Japanese language.

Programs of this kind are similarly being introduced by regional governments with large foreign resident populations.

Regional governments have hosted manufacturing plants by offering tax breaks and other incentives and have become heavily dependent on them for economic activity. The Sony plant in Minokamo, for example, hired as many as 5,000 workers for production of computer game machines, mobile phones and other gadgets.

But the closure of plants has dealt a huge blow to their host economies, and finding ways to reduce their reliance on large manufacturers has been an ongoing challenge for regional governments.