Hard times for foreign workers

Laid off by the thousands, some don't have money for food, let alone enough to return home


First of two parts

OSAKA — With the global economic downturn, many Japanese workers face a not very Merry Christmas or Happy New Year as they lose their jobs or see wages or hours cut.

But the bad economy is hitting the country’s foreign workers particularly hard, with nongovernmental organization volunteers warning that many who have been laid off face not only losing their homes and access to education in their mother tongue, but also that emergency food rations are now being distributed to the most desperate cases.

“Of the nearly 300 people who attend my church, between 30 and 40 of them have already lost their jobs, and I expect more will soon be laid off as companies choose not to renew their contracts. Many of those who have lost their jobs have no place to live or get through the winter,” said Laelso Santos, pastor at a church in Karia, Aichi Prefecture, and the head of Maos Amigas, an NGO assisting foreign workers and their families.

“We’re currently distributing about 300 kg of food per month to foreigners nationwide who are out of work. I’m afraid the amount of food aid needed will increase as the number of out-of-work foreigners increases,” Santos said.

Over the past few months, layoffs among foreigners nationwide, especially those who are temp workers employed by auto parts manufacturing plants in the Kanto and Chubu regions, continue to grow as Toyota and other leading automobile firms struggle with declining demand. Many now out of work would return home if they could, but the rising cost of airplane tickets due to increased fuel surcharges makes it difficult.

“A lot of Brazilians who have lost their jobs would return if they could. But a ticket back costs nearly ¥200,000, which is money they don’t have,” Santos said.

Even those who at least for the moment still have jobs and want to stay are finding it difficult.

Erica Muramoto, a Gunma Prefecture-based Brazilian who teaches Japanese as a second language, arrived in Japan with her two children in 2001, a year after her husband, a Japanese-Brazilian, found work at Nihon Seiko, a car parts manufacturer.

“My husband and the rest of the foreign staff have just gotten a two-month contract that finishes at the end of January. After that, he doesn’t know what will happen to him or to his friends,” Muramoto said.

“I’m still working, but sadly some Nikkei Brazilian (Japanese-Brazilian) families here in Gunma are in trouble, and are almost without a place to live or without food,” she said, echoing the concerns of the Aichi-based Santos.

Of Japan’s roughly 2.2 million registered foreigners, the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry estimates about 930,000 were working legally or illegally as of the end of 2006. In some towns in the Chubu region, where many Japanese-Brazilians and others work in small auto parts manufacturers, foreigners constitute a significant percentage of the total population.

Nearly 11 percent of the 55,000 residents of Minokamo, Gifu Prefecture, are registered foreigners. Most are from Brazil, the Philippines or China. Minokamo currently serves as secretariat for a group of 26 municipalities throughout the country with a high proportion of foreign residents. On Dec. 17, the group called on the central government to provide emergency employment and lifestyle assistance to their foreign workers and their families.

A few days later, the central government announced that the plan to spur consumption by handing out cash payments nationwide would include foreigners.

Fumika Odajima, a Minokamo-based spokeswoman for the 26 municipalities, said Monday there was still no word on what further assistance, if any, the central government would provide in response to the group’s aid request.

Central government money, specifically for foreign residents, is needed because the local governments say they are struggling to meet the financial needs of growing numbers of jobless Japanese residents and have neither the financial nor personnel resources to adequately handle the needs of large numbers of jobless foreigners and their families.

In the meantime, they are offering services like language assistance because improved language skills would increase the foreigners’ chances of getting a job.

“In Minokamo, from early January, we’ll offer beginning and intermediate Japanese lessons to foreign residents seeking new jobs, and try to introduce them to potential employers,” Odajima said.

But the effectiveness of such efforts in a worsening economy is questionable and does little to solve the immediate crisis facing Japan’s laid-off foreign workers.

“Of course, Japanese workers who get laid off are suffering as well. But unlike foreign workers, most Japanese have friends and relatives they can turn to for immediate financial help, at least enough to ensure they have enough to eat,” Santos said. “(The foreign workers) desperately need financial help for their daily lives now, not for things like language assistance.”