• Kyodo

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Foreign workers in Japan, an essential part of the labor force in the aging country, have been one of the demographic groups most affected by the economic downturn due to the coronavirus pandemic.

While many such workers were fired or furloughed as a result of the economic fallout from the virus, some are striving to empower themselves and improve the situation surrounding their employment.

Among them is a Filipino woman living in Aichi Prefecture — which, according to the Justice Ministry, has the largest Filipino population in the country with 39,339 residents as of late 2019 — who formed a labor union for foreign workers last June.

“I’d like to create a good working environment for foreigners,” said the woman, who goes by the pseudonym Maria Santos, as she worries her union role may hinder her job search.

Santos formed the union in Aichi, where many Filipinos work in the manufacturing sector, along with 15 other Filipinos after they were laid off or didn’t have their fixed-term contracts renewed amid the pandemic.

The Aichi Migrants Workers union aims to help foreign workers and is the first local community-based union for non-Japanese laborers in the prefecture.

With the help of a local union named Union Aichi, AMW holds monthly study sessions on Japan’s labor systems and laws and as of early March had 24 members from the Philippines.

“We, as foreigners, want to help each other by learning the employment system here,” said the 56-year-old Santos, who holds long-term resident status in Japan, having arrived here in 1988.

Santos, who has worked several jobs while raising her children, first started thinking about setting up a labor union two years ago, she said.

But in March last year, she lost her job at a plant that assembles automobile parts after her contract as a dispatched temporary worker was not renewed.

Realizing that she was not the only non-Japanese worker to have lost their job motivated her to form the union.

Santos, who was unsure about unemployment benefits and had been paid less than was stipulated in her contract, said the union holds sessions to teach its members about the labor system.

In mid-February, Santos and several other members of AMW, as well as some members from Union Aichi, gathered for such a meeting in Nagoya.

An official of Union Aichi talked about the mechanisms of labor unions and workers’ rights in Japanese and Santos interpreted the explanation into Tagalog and English.

Santos said she hopes to increase the membership of AMW by attracting not only Filipino workers but also those from other countries through the learning sessions and exchange events.

“A lot of foreign workers (in Aichi) have been employed for a limited term and are used as a fluid labor force,” often putting them in vulnerable positions, said Hirokazu Mori, secretary general of Union Aichi.

“If they form a labor union, the union members can protest to employers on problems such as layoffs without a rational reason.”

Companies cannot refuse requests from unions to negotiate under the nation’s labor law, Mori said, noting rights such as obtaining paid holidays, which are often not given to foreign workers, can be restored through the negotiations.

According to a survey of the labor ministry, 93,354 people have lost their jobs due to the coronavirus pandemic as of March 5, with the manufacturing industry suffering the most with 20,536 layoffs.

While a breakdown by nationality is not available in the data, it is believed a large number of foreign workers are included in the figure, with Mori saying his union has heard from a number of non-Japanese workers in Aichi who have lost their job in the past year.

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