Issues | THE FOREIGN ELEMENT

Pandemic leaves Indian cooks in Japan dependent on bosses and the state

Cuts to already low salaries mean many can no longer send money home

by Megha Wadhwa

Contributing writer

“Amitav” starts his day at 6 a.m. He needs to get up that early to get to his job as a cook at an Indian restaurant for 9 a.m. He’ll get a two- to three-hour break during his shift before finishing up at 11 p.m., and he usually gets home at midnight. It’s a long day.

The 38-year-old from Dehradun in the Indian state of Uttarakhand gets one day off a week unless he has to work a special occasion, like a party, which he doesn’t get paid extra for. A cook’s salary at most Indian restaurants in Tokyo averages between ¥50,000 and ¥150,000 per month depending on their experience and the owner of the restaurant. Amitav makes ¥100,000.

The minimum hourly wage in Tokyo as of October last year was ¥1,013, which means these cooks should be making closer to ¥300,000 per month. On the plus side, their rent, utilities and food are usually taken care of by the employer, but the majority of them need to send between 75 and 90 percent of their take-home back to families in India.

It’s a lot of hard work — and that was before the arrival of COVID-19, a state of emergency and a “new normal” that still finds many of Tokyo’s patrons avoiding dining out.

“Now suddenly I have to sit at home,” says Amitav, who, along with the other cooks in this article, has asked to use a pseudonym to avoid getting in trouble with his boss. “It is more stressful because there is no work and no salary.”

The image of the traditional Japanese salaryman sees them devoting their life to their company; the average Indian cook’s life similarly revolves around the restaurant they work for. Not only do they spend most of their waking hours there, most of them share cramped accommodation with the other cooks and servers they work with.

“In March, we received 50 percent of our salary, but in April we were only given ¥20,000,” says Amitav, whose restaurant closed temporarily from April 10. It has since reopened, but his salary has not been fully restored. “We were told by our owner that we would be given ¥100,000 by the government, and we are waiting to get the forms so that we can fill them out and apply for that. The owner has said he’s also applying for a loan, and once he gets that, then he might be able to give us money.”

Staff from Govinda's Tokyo restaurant have been making bento lunches to give to hospital workers during the pandemic, supported by the owner and the Indian community. | MEGHA WADHWA
Staff from Govinda’s Tokyo restaurant have been making bento lunches to give to hospital workers during the pandemic, supported by the owner and the Indian community.

Amitav isn’t alone. Many cooks currently find themselves desperately awaiting the cash handout that the Japanese government has said it would grant to all of its residents.

“I had to borrow money from a friend. He works for an Indian restaurant chain and they received full salaries, so he helped me out,” he says. “I can’t send any money to my family, and I worry about that because my wife, parents and children are all dependent on my income, and at this time I don’t have anything, not even to support myself. I really hope the government can do a bit more to help.”

Those that come to Japan to work in Indian restaurants do so on a “cook” visa that falls under the category of a specified skilled worker. According to Justice Ministry figures, there were 35,419 Indians in Japan as of December 2018, and 5,237 of them held a skilled labor visa.

In the case of the Indian cooks, some also fall victim to schemes that require them to pay a lump sum up front before arriving in Japan to ensure they will get documentation, an amount that at minimum can cost them an extra ¥1 million. Those stuck here without work, salary and possibly debt are now wondering whether returning home would have been a better option for them.

“If there were flights running, I would have gone to India,” says a 34-year-old cook who goes by the name “Gaurank.” “At least I could have been with my family at this difficult time.”

The option of returning home to India is now out of his hands, though. There are a very limited number of flights out of Japan, as well as within India. Even if he and others like him were able to get home, there is no guarantee of them finding a job in India under the current circumstances: Although it has since been lifted, the country experienced one of the world’s strictest lockdowns and currently has the fourth-highest number of coronavirus cases globally.

“Avdhesh,” 35, lost his job as a cook in March and is finding it difficult to find new work due to Japan’s virus-related economic slowdown. He says he was close to being homeless when his old boss hired him at a different establishment where he now works unpaid for two hours a day so that he can continue to stay in the apartment his boss owns. He is looking for another job, but it’s hard to find work outside of the restaurant industry as he doesn’t speak Japanese or English very well.

“I will be unemployed from here on and will have to look for a new Indian restaurant to work at,” Avdhesh says. “I’m waiting to get money from the government, I can’t send money to my family and don’t know how long for because we don’t know how long the situation will last. I don’t know what to do.”

Running the business

Restaurant owners are feeling the responsibility of having to take care of their staff in addition to struggling with the pandemic themselves. Anil Raj owns some kindergartens and an IT consulting firm, but it’s his chain of Indian restaurants in the greater Tokyo area that has suffered the most since the outbreak.

“My restaurant business is the worst affected because that is where people stop going the moment something like this happens,” he says, adding that one of his five branches had to close due to the state of emergency. “Our sales are only 20 percent of what they were before the outbreak, and in some of the branches that figure is as low as 10 percent. The business started feeling the strain in March, but in April things got even worse.”

Raj says the situation has remained the same through May and into June, though with the ending of the nationwide state of emergency the restaurant has been allowed to extend its opening hours to 10 p.m.

“Even takeout isn’t doing well,” Raj adds, “because when you say ‘home delivery,’ the first thing that comes to your mind is pizza, not Indian food.”

Speaking to nine restaurant owners, some say they have succeeded in negotiating the deferment of rent payments on their premises, while others had no choice but to continue paying as usual. After rent, most say worker salaries are a major concern with all but two of them cutting pay in half since April.

“This is a very difficult time. The customers are very much afraid and don’t come out,” says Ganesan Hari Narayanan, who owns two restaurants in Edogawa Ward. “Our service through Uber Eats is doing well, but our overall sales are still down by 60 percent. It is going to be very difficult. Business started suffering in March, but in April it was totally flat.”

Bento bonus: The bento lunches being made by Govinda's are also being delivered to single mothers in need of support. | MEGHA WADHWA
Bento bonus: The bento lunches being made by Govinda’s are also being delivered to single mothers in need of support.

With revenue continuing to fall short in May and June, Narayanan started a bento lunch service that includes a donation element. He and the greater Indian community have been distributing the bento for free to hospital workers and single mothers who find themselves struggling as a result of the economic situation. In addition to the charity component, the bento service has been able to help bring in some cash and gives the cooks working for him something to occupy their time.

Besides the take-out initiatives, restaurant owners have all turned to the Japanese government to help them stay afloat in the form of subsidies and interest-free loans. However, they express frustration with the bureaucracy involved in the application process and, of course, the fact that there is no assurance of the amount they can receive or when it might arrive. And those aren’t the only numbers that matter — if infection cases start to rise due to a much-feared second wave of COVID-19 then restaurant owners may find themselves making further difficult decisions.

In need of assistance

Yogendra “Yogi” Puranik, is a city councilor of Indian descent in Edogawa Ward. He believes the government needs to be ready to go further than it has to help businesses through these exceptionally tough times.

“What if the coronavirus crisis goes on a bit longer?” he says. “Would there be a possibility that the government could write off the loans offered to businesses and even pump in more financial benefits?”

In Yogi’s opinion, government officials need to be more strategic and analytical in their approach to dealing with life in the time of a pandemic. Blanket decisions, he says, won’t cut it.

“There seems to be a lack of proper analysis by the Japanese government. They should create a three-dimensional matrix, and in that matrix, there is a need to figure out all the classifications that exist in our society,” he says. “I am not sure if they are doing any proper analysis before making these decisions, whether it’s about closing schools or handing out subsidies.

“They need to include different classifications of people, and at the same time consider their life cycles and understand how people’s lives are being affected by this situation.”

People like Amitav are who Yogi has in mind. In the meantime, the cook is simply happy to be able to work again.

“I prefer the restaurant being open to it not being open,” Amitav says. “Of course, I am still worried about the virus, but when I was sitting at home all I would do is worry about it all the time. Being busy at the restaurant helps me take my mind off things, it’s nice not to worry so much.”

Megha Wadhwa, Ph.D., is a post-doctoral fellow at the Institute of Comparative Culture, Sophia University. Her research focuses on the Indian community in Japan. A longer version of this article will be posted soon on the Japan Focus website.

Your news needs your support

Since the early stages of the COVID-19 crisis, The Japan Times has been providing free access to crucial news on the impact of the novel coronavirus as well as practical information about how to cope with the pandemic. Please consider subscribing today so we can continue offering you up-to-date, in-depth news about Japan.

Coronavirus banner