Single mothers and women with less secure jobs in Japan have seen their employment opportunities upended as the coronavirus pandemic continues to rage.
For many of them, maintaining their income levels while attending to their children’s needs as stay-at-home moms or women living alone is proving a formidable task.
Based on a labor market survey by the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry in April, the employed population of women dropped by 530,000 from the same month the previous year to 29.3 million — the first such downward shift in over eight years.
Experts emphasize the need to establish a safety net for women, who generally make up a larger percentage of so-called nonregular workers, who mostly work part time or full time on fixed-term contracts and are the first to be laid off in a downturn through what is called the “employment adjustment valve” system.
In Japan, a regular employee is someone who is hired directly by an employer without a predetermined period of employment and who works for scheduled hours.
Overall, unemployment has risen for three straight months through May for the first time since it worsened for six months in a row from February to July in 2009 in the aftermath of the global financial crisis, according to government data.
The data also showed the pace of labor market deterioration was accelerating under the government’s state of emergency declaration over the virus, which was lifted on May 25, leaving only a few restrictions on economic activities.
During the state of emergency, which was in place since April, the government asked businesses to suspend operations and people to refrain from making nonessential outings to prevent the further spread of the virus, taking a heavy toll on the economy.
One 38-year-old single mother from Tokyo, who declined to give her identity and is engaged in freelance video production work, lives with her 3-year-old son.
“I had no income in April and May,” the woman lamented. “We were requested not to bring our kids to the nursery school, and since I had to look after my son, I wasn’t able to search for a part-time job. I had to dip into my savings to make ends meet,” she said.
Aside from the added spending from staying home on food, utilities and other essentials, the woman also had a growing sense of anxiety because of her isolation, being unable to meet others.
“My orders for work haven’t returned yet. There must be many people in the same situation as I am, so I would really like it if there was a place I could consult with others,” she said.
Since the early 2010s, Japanese women’s employment appeared to be steadily growing, with the government actively pushing female participation in the workforce amid a shortage of labor due to the declining birthrate and aging population.
Indeed, women topped 30 million in the workforce for the first time in June last year. But the breakdown, excluding female executives, tells a different story, with more than half of those in nonregular work positions — more than double the ratio of men.
In April, the overall number of nonregular employees decreased by 970,000 from a year earlier, of whom 710,000 were women. This contrasts with an increase of 410,000 regularly employed women the same month.
Women in the age bracket of 35 to 44 employed in nonregular jobs, many of whom are raising children, saw a precipitous drop of 280,000 the same month.
Why are so many women out of work? Women make up a larger percentage of nonregular workers on the whole, for instance, in service sector jobs such as the food and beverage and accommodation industries. These sectors were among the hardest hit after the emergency declaration in April, requiring many people to stay home.
Eiji Seki, a consultant on labor matters for the Japanese Trade Union Confederation in Tokyo, said, “There have been more women who are nonregular workers coming for consultations since May. Most of them are not paid an allowance when put on leave, and a large number of them are firings or unfair terminations,” he explained.
Machiko Osawa, a professor of labor economics at Japan Women’s University familiar with women’s labor issues, said whereas men working in the manufacturing industry became the victims of downsizing during what Japan dubbed “the Lehman shock,” single moms and single female nonregular workers are facing the greatest difficulty today.
The government has expanded the employment adjustment subsidy system, which is provided to companies that pay employee leave allowances, but because of the complexity of the procedure, there are many cases in which the applicants give up.
“The support must be bolstered for women who are unable to pay their rent anymore through providing them with housing and, for the time being, cash benefits for living expenses,” Osawa said.
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