First of two parts

Staff writer

KAWASAKI — Many unskilled foreign laborers with low-paying jobs are complaining about work conditions worsening due to the recession. But some are fighting back, trying to organize labor unions and ethnic support groups.

Dante Nakahodo and four other Peruvian workers of Japanese descent began holding monthly meetings here in January to study Japan’s legal system and social issues and to talk about building a community here just as their ancestors did in Peru.

“We need something like a barrier to protect ourselves and secure our life,” said Nakahodo, 38, a second-generation Japanese-Peruvian who came to Japan in 1987.

“Various brochures say that foreign workers’ rights are protected by law, but they are often not practiced at the workplace,” he said.

When Nakahodo took four days off in April 1992 from the auto parts company in Yokohama where he and his wife work because his father died, the company docked him four day’s pay and cut his bonus in half to 100,000 yen, he said.

Then last year, after Nakahodo and his wife returned from a 25-day visit to Peru, they were told they would be dismissed after their latest three-month contract expired.

“That was the first paid holiday that I took after working at the company for 10 years,” he said.

Believing that the company was axing them for taking time off, they asked Kanagawa City Union, a 530-member labor union here, for help.

After the union negotiated with management on behalf of Nakahodo and several other foreign workers who were also given dismissal notices, the company assented to keep them on, he said.

Nakahodo’s story may not be uncommon out of the estimated 600,000 people in Japan working low-paying, unskilled jobs shunned by Japanese. Such work has been labeled “3K” since the bubble days — “kitsui” (hard), “kitanai” (dirty) and “kiken” (dangerous).

In the late 1980s, when Japan was booming and faced a labor shortage, the manufacturing and construction industries turned to foreign laborers.

But there was a dirty Catch-22 — despite the large number of companies eager to hire them, Japan does not grant work visas to foreigners for unskilled jobs except for those of Japanese descent, forcing many to stay in the country illegally.

Companies have often treated them badly, failing to apply for workers’ accident compensation, dismissing them on short notice and cheating them on salary.

While the economic slump has deprived many Japanese of their jobs, boosting the unemployment rate to a record 4.8 percent as of April, the job market for foreign migrant workers has worsened even more.

“In a recession like this, foreign workers are the first group to be laid off,” said Satoshi Murayama of Kanagawa City Union, which handles about 300 cases of worker mistreatment a year. More than half of its members are foreigners from South Korea, Latin America and other parts of the world.

Union members are required to join collective negotiations with management and rallies to improve working conditions at their companies. Murayama said the activities provide foreign workers opportunities to learn about their rights.

In fact, although Nakahodo’s company has tried to dismiss some foreign workers or press them to take severance packages, union members have forced it to back down, said Nakahodo, who earns 2.7 million yen annually.

“During the bubble economy, migrant workers could get jobs easily, so few complained about their working conditions,” said Keiko Tanahara, who works with Latin Americans at the Solidarity Center for Migrants, a nongovernmental organization that supports foreign workers.

“Now they are really aware of their working environment. Although many are still reluctant to get involved in union activities, a few have been motivated to take action by themselves,” Tanahara said.

A group of Filipino workers in Kanagawa Prefecture plans to launch a labor union, the Samahang Migranteng Pilipino, in August.

“Since so many problems are coming up right now, we really feel we need to start this,” said an SMP member who came to Japan about a year ago.

The man, who asked not to be named, said SMP will also deal with workers’ psychological problems that support groups like Kanagawa City Union cannot handle because of language and cultural barriers.

“If your fingers are cut off (at the workplace), it’s not just a problem to be solved by money,” he said. “How can you go back with the stress of having your fingers cut off? We would also like to handle the mental stress.”

In addition, SMP will help members prepare for returning to the Philippines by advising, for instance, how to manage their savings once they get back.

“They will bring a lot of money back. But if they don’t know how to manage that money, suddenly it is gone, and again they will find themselves caught in a circle of migration,” said Manny Rosales, who works with Filipinos at the Solidarity Center for Migrants and advises SMP. “We cannot stop migration but we have to do something to intervene (in the process).”

One major concern in forming such a union may be that many Filipinos are working illegally.

There are about 230,000 foreigners of Japanese descent, mainly from South America, who are here legally doing unskilled work. The number of illegal workers was estimated to be at least 270,000 as of 1998.

“So many people are scared because they are overstaying,” Rosales said. “But they were pushed to go to Japan because Japan created jobs (like bar hostessing and construction work) during the bubble economy. In the Philippines, there are no jobs. We would like to be accepted as part of Japanese society. We have been contributing so much to the Japanese economy.”

Takashi Miyajima, a sociologist at Rikkyo University, said whether they are overstaying or not, the government should give foreign workers the same rights as their Japanese counterparts.

When Japan faces a labor shortage in the next century, foreign workers will be wanted, he said.

“But since the manufacturing industry will decline, we will need different types of workers, such as nurses at hospitals and nursing facilities for the elderly,” he said.

However, even if there is a labor shortage in the future, Miyajima believes the government will not change its foreign labor policy to accept unskilled laborers from overseas.

“One way to open the job market to foreign workers would be to train them in certain skills” so they would be able to obtain legitimate work visas, he said.

The Third National Forum in Solidarity with Migrant Workers, Tokyo ’99 is scheduled for Saturday and Sunday at Rodo Square Tokyo in Chuo Ward. Issues to be discussed include labor unions, immigration law, medical and educational issues and cooperation with migrant workers in other parts of Asia. The participation fee is 2,000 yen for two days. For more information, call (03) 5818-5768 or fax (03) 3836-9077.

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