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A growing number of foreign nationals working in Japan, mostly under fixed-term employment contracts, are seeking assistance after losing their jobs amid the novel coronavirus crisis.

Workers from foreign countries are seeing a tougher employment environment due to the pandemic, which had eliminated more than 50,000 jobs for them by the end of August.

In Aichi Prefecture, home to Japan’s automobile industry, a number of auto parts suppliers have been severely hit by sharp drops in orders due to slumping vehicle sales worldwide amid the pandemic, and have started to terminate contracts with the foreign nationals they had employed, notably Japanese Brazilians.

The prefecture in central Japan has the second largest foreign population in Japan after Tokyo, including some 62,000 people from Brazil — or one-third of Brazilians living in the country — as of the end of 2019.

Facing the tough employment situation, to which the ongoing U.S.-China trade dispute has also contributed, nearly 100 workers, mainly foreign nationals, have joined the Nagoya Fureai Union over the past year in order to bargain collectively with their employers.

"Many foreign workers don't know contract terms because they can't read contracts," says Shuichiro Tsurumaru, who heads the individual workers' union based in Nagoya, the prefectural capital.

Gilberto Yutaka Nakao, 61, a second-generation Japanese Brazilian who has worked for an auto parts maker in the city of Nishio for over 20 years, joined the union after he was told by the company at the end of April that his contract would be terminated because he had turned 60, a decision he could not accept.

As a union member, Nakao was able to bring the company's management to the bargaining table to seek continued employment. He successfully returned to work two months later after securing an agreement with management for him to be made a permanent employee, in line with a legal provision allowing those working under a direct fixed-term employment contract with the same employer for at least five years to apply for the conversion to an open-ended contract.

While expressing appreciation to be able to keep working in Japan, Nakao says foreign and Japanese workers should be treated equally. At the company where he works about 100 people had their employment contracts terminated as of the end of July, and are now preparing lawsuits.

People familiar with the matter have said that in many contract termination cases plaintiffs ended up winning only a financial settlement as their employment contracts were fixed-term.

Nakao is determined to continue his activities as a union member to help foreign nationals who have lost their jobs.

Since the immigration control law was revised in 1990, when many migrant workers came from Brazil, Japanese firms have shortened the contracted employment period for fixed-term workers to three months so they can adjust their labor force based on quarterly production outlooks, explains Kiyoto Tanno, a professor at Tokyo Metropolitan University.

The expert on labor problems facing Japanese Brazilians also notes that "the prevailing management policy of reducing inventories as much as possible is leading to an unstable employment situation for them."

He suggests that employers "sign foreign workers onto annual contracts at least."

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