• Kyodo

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As fear over the coronavirus grips Japan, labor unions say they are receiving a growing number of reports from people who have faced discrimination at the hands of their bosses and harassment by customers frustrated with merchandise shortages.

A 73-year-old woman working at a manufacturing company in Nara said her manager shouted for her colleague in early April to stop asking the woman to eat together. She also found out that the same manager had told another colleague to stay away from her.

"I can only think of the novel coronavirus as the reason. I am commuting from Osaka," where the number of infections has been growing, she said.

In Osaka Prefecture, more than 1,200 people have been infected with the virus, compared to just over 60 in Nara Prefecture.

The woman said it was a hurtful experience as she was forced to stop eating lunch at her workplace.

The Japanese Trade Union Confederation, which is the country's largest labor organization and is also known as Rengo, said it had received reports of virus-linked harassment that included a boss spraying sanitizer at a subordinate and a fresh recruit being told to come to the office as usual because young people were at lower risk of becoming seriously ill from the virus.

"Not just overreaction but inconsiderate statements and actions do constitute harassment," said a Rengo official who deals with workplace harassment, adding that "insecurity and stress are harming human relations and tend to be among the causes of harassment."

A survey in March by the National Supermarket Association of Japan indicated that harassment by customers was also on the rise as people take out their frustration on shop workers when products they want, such as face masks, are sold out.

There was a case in which a customer called a store every time a delivery truck arrived, demanding its workers restock shelves as soon as possible. Others reported customers making complaints based on rumors.

"There are many stores that are short-staffed and are in a vicious cycle of having to deal with complaints and busy shelf stocking and checkout work," an association official said.

There have also been cases of discrimination against medical workers and a persistent view among people that it is individuals' own fault they become infected with the virus.

Keiko Fujino of the Japan Institute for Women's Empowerment and Diversity Management, a foundation for the promotion of workers' welfare, said people should report virus-related harassment just like any other form of harassment and seek consultation.

"This may be an issue new to firms, but they need to examine how (harassment) occurred and deal with it appropriately," she said.

Fujino also urged people working at home to be more careful about their choice of words when communicating online.

"People need to be aware that it is hard to communicate their feelings (online) and be respectful of the feelings of people on the other end," she said.

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