National | 3/11: Moving forward

Foreign workers helping Tohoku seafood companies recover from 2011 quake and tsunami

by Magdalena Osumi

Staff Writer

This is the third in a series examining how the northeast and the nation are progressing with efforts to deal with the March 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis.

For the past three years, Fika Sulistyani’s morning routine has consisted of either gutting or filleting fish at a seafood processing factory in Miyagi Prefecture.

The Indonesia native is among about 350 foreign nationals who have been brought to the coastal city of Shiogama under a government-sponsored technical trainee program as one of the region’s core industries deals with the losses caused by the devastating tsunami triggered by the Great East Japan Earthquake on March 11, 2011.

Waves as high as 30 meters hit fishing towns along coastal areas of Miyagi, Iwate and Fukushima prefectures, devastating the fisheries industry — not to mention the lives of those who worked there.

Eight years on, some of the industry has slowly recovered. Fishermen have adapted and found new bases of operation, and fish farmers have mostly rebounded. But one of the industry’s key sectors — seafood processing — has struggled the most, with factories and equipment having been decimated by tsunami.

Amid the challenges of the ongoing recovery, fish processors are now trying to stem their losses by turning to foreign trainees as firms deal with a severe labor shortage in the region.

But with foreign workers, many of them in the technical training program, playing a vital role in the region’s key industry, the sustainability of those firms going forward remains unclear.

Sporting a white gown, surgical mask and cotton cap on a recent Wednesday, Sulistyani was among a group of 11 workers preparing some 20,000 mackerel fillets at a factory operated by Zengyoren Shokuhin Co.

Fika Sulistyani works at Zengyoren Shokuhin
Fika Sulistyani works at Zengyoren Shokuhin’s plant in Shiogama, Miyagi Prefecture, on Feb. 20. | MAGDALENA OSUMI

The firm has 18 Indonesian women working at its Shiogama branch, its largest, accounting for nearly a third of the workforce.

“Their presence is good for the future of our company,” management representative Takeshi Sasaki said.

Sasaki said the company has been dependent on foreign trainees since 2007, when the effects of the labor shortage were already becoming apparent. He noted that, even before 2011, many other marine food processing companies in the area had also been hiring technical interns.

The situation worsened when the disaster struck, killing more than 15,000 people, including some of Zengyoren Shokuhin’s workers, and bringing extensive damage to its facilities. Following the calamity, Zengyoren Shokuhin was forced to close its Ishinomaki branch and temporarily halt operations at its Kesennuma factory.

“The disaster came when the region was already dealing with a labor shortage, and the disaster only aggravated the problem,” said Masahiko Fujimoto, a professor on regional economic development and director of Tohoku University’s Regional Innovation Research Center.

The calamity put about half of the nearly 600 food processing firms operating in Miyagi at risk of going out of business, he said.

“The challenges they’re facing now were expected to come at least 10 years later,” Fujimoto said.

Shiogama’s harbor
Shiogama’s harbor | MAGDALENA OSUMI

In partnership with the Tohoku Bureau of Economy, Trade and Industry, Fujimoto runs a project tasked with crafting ways to revitalize the seafood processing industry.

According to Fujimoto, about 61 percent of firms in the region’s industry are struggling with a labor shortage. Furthermore, more than 70 percent of such firms are small businesses that employ less than 20 people.

Compounding the problem, ironically, are projects related to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics — dubbed the “recovery Olympics,” — as well as other government-led reconstruction projects in the region, as they draw potential workers away from the fisheries industry.

“Now that most young people leave the city for better-paid jobs in Sendai, help from foreign trainees has become indispensable,” said Toshiya Takahashi, a Shiogama official in charge of the recruitment of foreign workers.

To be sure, the labor shortage is not the only headache for the region’s seafood processing industry. Distribution is also a problem and the hardest-hit companies are those that don’t make exclusive products and distribute to grocery stores or producers of canned seafood products. Those struggling firms need to regularly adapt to the needs of the market and now find themselves paying more to bring in products from overseas.

Still, the industry has managed to slowly get back on its feet, in part due to the recruitment of foreign trainees.

According to the Shiogama Municipal Government, 344 of the 545 foreign nationals living in the city were technical trainees as of last December. The trainees mainly come from Vietnam, China, Indonesia, Myanmar and Cambodia. About 85 percent of them are women and more than half are in their 20s.

At Zengyoren Shokuhin, the trainees process seafood caught off the Sanriku Coast and are usually assigned to filleting mackerel, as well as seasonal offerings, including squid in the winter and salmon in the fall. The firm initially struggled to find applicants with knowledge about food processing and marine products, Sasaki said. But the situation changed for the better in 2013 when it began accepting graduates from Indonesian high schools that specialize in fish farming and aquaculture.

Squid, along with mackerel and salmon, are among the types of seafood processed by foreign technical trainees at Zengyoren Shokuhin
Squid, along with mackerel and salmon, are among the types of seafood processed by foreign technical trainees at Zengyoren Shokuhin’s plant in Shiogama, Miyagi Prefecture. | MAGDALENA OSUMI

Sasaki believes that trainees with fish-processing know-how can help companies rebound.

Many of the foreign workers in Shiogama are in the country on technical trainee visas, a program that is intended to provide workers from developing countries with skills they can take back to their home countries after three or five years, but which has long been criticized for human rights abuses, with some employers exploiting the system as a conduit of cheap labor.

At the end of last October, there were a total of 308,489 foreign trainees employed by Japanese firms, according to labor ministry data.

More than 18,500 are believed to be working in the seafood processing industry.

As scandals involving corporate giants like Panasonic Corp. and Mitsubishi Motors Corp. — which were each slapped with disciplinary measures for abuses of the program — continue to surface, leaders at Shiogama’s seafood processing firms say they are aware that misuse would endanger their business.

Sasaki said Zengyoren Shokuhin and others in the industry don’t promise a life of luxury to the trainees they bring in, but instead strive to help them adjust to life in Japan and treat them like family.

Many trainees, meanwhile, see the program as a learning experience.

“I want to use what I’ve learned here when I get back home,” Zengyoren Shokuhin’s Sulistyani said. She said she had come prepared when she arrived in Japan, with some knowledge about fish processing and a conversational level of Japanese.

For Kyokuyoshokuhin Co., a frozen food producer headquartered in Shiogama, hiring foreign trainees turned out to be the best option to ensure workforce stability when the firm renovated its factory in the city in 2016.

The firm has been struggling to recruit workers since the 2011 disaster, said Kazuto Usuki, the company’s administrative affairs division manager.

Now, 19 of the 170 workers at the Shiogama factory, which mainly produces food products such as simmered mackerel in miso sauce, grilled mackerel and fried shrimp, hail from either China or Vietnam.

“If they suddenly left the company we would be in trouble,” Usuki said, adding that the firm was planning to accept 10 new Vietnamese trainees later in the year.

A group of Vietnamese trainees head for a lunch break on Feb. 20 at fishery processing firm Kyokuyoshokuhin Co. in Shiogama, Miyagi Prefecture.
A group of Vietnamese trainees head for a lunch break on Feb. 20 at fishery processing firm Kyokuyoshokuhin Co. in Shiogama, Miyagi Prefecture. | MAGDALENA OSUMI

But he said his firm was benefiting from the existing training program and that it allows the company to secure the number of workers it needs.

Sasaki, meanwhile, is hoping the Indonesian trainees at his firm will be able to extend their stays for another two years.

But there are lingering questions about the future of the industry and whether the trainee program is a stable solution or a stopgap.

Both Sasaki and Usuki are skeptical about Japan’s new visa categories for blue-collar workers with certain skills, part of a policy which will come into effect in April allowing foreign trainees to work for an additional five years. They agree the program is still “too vague” for it to be a plan they can keep hanging their hopes on.

Tohoku University’s Fujimoto said that the program cannot guarantee sustainability for their businesses.

The fish processing firms’ recruitment of foreign trainees helped them get back on their feet — but the trainee system will not guarantee them future prosperity, he said.

“It’s like applying a Band-Aid, as these firms won’t have anyone to take the business over,” he said.

Fishery processors will need to seek new strategies locally to make their businesses thrive. Fujimoto envisions a future where young, local aquaculturists take charge of such firms.

Fujimoto’s team is developing a plan to support local firms by better targeting foreign markets and encouraging food-processing businesses to tie up on delivery, seafood imports — and possibly even facilities, workers and other services — to reduce production costs.

He’s hopeful that firms that take on new challenges will survive, but for now, Shiogama will continue its path toward recovery with the helping hands of its foreign staff.

This is a series examining how the northeast and the nation are progressing with efforts to deal with the March 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis.