April 22, 2011

THERE GOES THEIR ONLY HOPE FOR A FUTURE:

The Flight of Japan's Immigrant Workers: Low-paid immigrant workers are fleeing the earthquake zone, and jobs are going begging (Drake Bennett, 4/21/11, Business Week)

The Mar. 11 disaster and the nuclear crisis have badly wounded Japan and its economy—from the tragic loss of life to the destruction of plants and ports. For many businesses, the disaster has had another effect: It has scared off the foreign workers they rely on.

Japan's aging population and extremely restrictive immigration policy, combined with a highly educated younger generation uninterested in menial labor, have created a shortage of workers willing to do the dirty, dangerous, or monotonous work that immigrants do in much of the rest of the wealthy world. Food processing and textile plants, restaurants, farms, and home health-care agencies have had difficulty filling job openings.

To help address that, Japan has created a temporary workforce, mostly from China, under what it calls its foreign worker trainee program. These workers spend three years in Japan, ostensibly learning a skill that they can take home with them. Immigrants rights groups and human rights lawyers, however, charge that the program simply provides companies with cheap, pliant labor while blocking actual immigration. In lawsuits, trainee workers have reported being paid as little as half the minimum wage in their first year. The minimum wage is usually between $8 and $10 an hour.

The aftermath of the earthquake suggests another weakness of the program: Some industries have come to depend on workers who are actively discouraged from putting down roots of any kind. When catastrophe occurs, Japan's trainee workers have little reason to stick around. And while they make up only a small fraction of the overall workforce, they're vital to certain parts of its agricultural, service, and manufacturing sectors. The Japan International Training Cooperation Organization (Jitco), the agency that administers the program, estimates that 70 percent or 80 percent of its more than 150,000 temporary workers have left the country since Mar. 11 and haven't come back.

The Japan Agricultural Cooperative Assn. chapter in Ibaraki, a prefecture at the southern end of the coastal area hit by the tsunami, reports that it lost 387 of its 1,591 foreign trainee workers through the end of March. Half the 1,500 foreign workers at the Hidakaya noodle shop chain went home after the earthquake. Recruit, the biggest manpower agency, is having trouble finding candidates for low-wage openings.

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Posted by at April 22, 2011 6:27 AM
  

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