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Disabled employees proving effective workers at recycling company

Disabled employees remove non-recyclable trays at FP Corp.'s Kanto recycling plant, in Yachiyo, Ibaraki Prefecture. (Mainichi)

The revised Act on Employment Promotion of Persons with Disabilities went into effect last spring, but only 48.8 percent of companies have met the requirement to have disabled persons occupy 2 percent of their workforce.

    Meanwhile, disabled employees at one company headquartered in Fukuyama, Hiroshima Prefecture, are proving themselves effective workers and could spur other companies to hire more disabled staff.

    At FP Corp., a disposable food container manufacturer, disabled persons -- including those with mental disabilities -- make up 14.56 percent of its workforce. Its Kanto recycling plant in Yachiyo, Ibaraki Prefecture, has 24 disabled employees, including at least one with a major disability, and all of them are on permanent-employee contracts with FPCO Ducks Co., a subsidiary of FP Corp.

    Food containers collected from supermarkets and schools arrive one after another on conveyor belts at the plant, in total numbering around one million a day. Those that cannot be recycled, such as ones with metal foil or ones that are too dirty, are found and removed by the workers.

    Kimiko Nishimura, an executive at FP Corp., says the disabled employees "excel at sorting out the items and in their ability to focus. They are more accurate than machines. They work for us regardless of the level of their disability."

    Kotaro Nakamura, a section leader at FPCO Ducks, says that at first, perhaps because they were not accustomed to working, the disabled employees would wander off from their post and hide in the factory, forcing him to sometimes chase after them. But after around three months of careful training, they became capable of working effectively. He says they understand when he teaches them that the work is a team effort and that productivity will fall if there are too many stoppages along the line. He also says that having veteran disabled employees teach the new ones leads to better training.

    Each of the employees sets their own productivity targets, and this serves to motivate them. Production line leaders are also chosen from among the workers to assist the supervisor.

    "Some employees want to become leaders, and this boosts motivation," says Nakamura.

    Similarly, at two other FP Corp.-affiliated factories in Bando, Ibaraki Prefecture, disabled persons are the backbone of the workforce. One of the plants, FPCO Ai Pack Co., is a "type-A continued employment support workplace," meaning that it hires people who have a difficult time finding employment at corporations at at least the minimum wage. There, nine disabled people quickly put together and inspect bento boxes.

    Junko Yamamoto, who is in charge of service management at the factory, says, "As they got used to the job, one person would begin doing the work that previously took two people to do." The machinery has a safety button that can be activated in the event of an accident, but as disabled people generally do not deviate from the set procedure they have learned, there have been no accidents to date.

    FP Corp. began employing disabled persons in 1986. A group called "Ahiru no Kai," comprising parents of intellectually disabled children, asked the company to create employment opportunities for their family members. The company proceeded with the goal not of employing disabled people out of sympathy, but of making them a primary workforce at the factories. Communicating with the workers and giving them responsibility over a range of work gave them motivation, which raised efficiency, which led back to more responsibilities, feeding back into a positive cycle.

    Partly due to labor shortages, more companies are looking to employ more disabled people. Ten companies participated in a job fair for people with disabilities in Akihabara, Tokyo, in November last year. A representative for Japan Post Bank Co. said, "We want to have the disabled work for us for a long time, so this opportunity to explain to them and exchange ideas with them is valuable." The disabled jobseekers asked questions like, "Can I work in a wheelchair?" and "Is there a bed to lie on if I feel like I'm going to fall down?"

    According to Litalico Inc., a Tokyo-based company that supports the disabled and held the job fair, a growing number of firms are enthusiastic about hiring people with disabilities, evidenced by the many inquiries it receives about hiring disabled employees. "We call on progressive companies to hire disabled employees and create models that will inspire other companies to do the same," a Litalico representative says.

    Shigeyasu Tanimoto, general-secretary for a labor union specializing in disabled employees, says, "For both people with and without disabilities, there is meaning in working as an independent adult." He adds, "The number of companies employing the legally set ratio of disabled persons is slowly increasing, but there is still far to go. The government needs to set up consultation centers for both companies and disabled workers on this issue, and provide long-term funding."

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