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Job opportunities for disabled diversifying through new local projects

Workers clip mulberry leaves and feed them to silkworms at Tomioka mayu kobo in the city of Tomioka, Gunma Prefecture, on June 1, 2017. (Mainichi)

Providing employment opportunities for the disabled is changing from being perceived as "support" activities to a diverse market breaking new ground by meeting individual and community needs as well as boosting local economies.

    One example of the movement to create new workplaces for those with disabilities can be found in the city of Tomioka, Gunma Prefecture. Tomioka is famous for the UNESCO World Heritage site Tomioka Silk Mill, where high-quality silk fibers that helped to boost the economy of modern Japan were produced. On June 1, Tomioka mayu kobo (silkworm workshop), operated by Tokyo-based employment support group Thanks Persol Co., opened with seven out of the 10 employees having a disability.

    There are few employment opportunities for the disabled in regional cities. Masatoshi Yajima, president of local NPO Atom, which operates group homes and other services for the disabled hailed the opening of the workshop as a promising change. "If they don't have an economic base, they can't live here," he said. "I want this to become the impetus to create more job opportunities."

    The seven employees with ages ranging from their 20s to 50s went out from the first day of business to carry out tasks such as weeding in the mulberry plantation and feeding the silkworms. The workshop is expected to be able to make its first shipment of cocoons by the middle of June at the earliest.

    "I'm glad I could find a job," a 23-year-old female employee told the Mainichi Shimbun after the opening ceremony of the workshop. "I'm excited to use my salary to go to concerts."

    Thanks Persol is a special subsidiary of major staffing agency Temp Holdings Co. When calculating the latter's employment rate of disabled persons, Temp Holdings is allowed to include those hired by Thanks Persol as disabled persons hired by Temp Holdings. It is part of a scheme to promote the hiring of people with disabilities. "While creating employment opportunities for the disabled, I would also like to contribute to revitalizing regional areas," said Thanks Persol President Jun Nakamura.

    A man cuts into a duvet to remove the feathers for recycling at Kawada Feather in the town of Meiwa, Mie Prefecture, on May 16, 2017. (Mainichi)

    Another city connecting disabled workers with regional revitalization is the city of Gamagori in Aichi Prefecture. Facing Mikawa Bay, the city has a booming marine product processing industry. Disabled residents participate in the production of dried seafood, fish cake croquettes and bread with chikuwa, or baked fish paste sausages. What they produce is sold at stores and even delivered to local traditional guesthouses in the area.

    These businesses that provide these labor opportunities to individuals whose disabilities make it difficult to work at other companies are managed by public welfare offices run by NPO Rakusho. "We aren't just providing support for people with disabilities," said president Yasuhisa Oda. "I think we have to operate businesses that the local community can also enjoy."

    At the bakery, housewives and others from the community work part time instructing the disabled workers, while skilled marine processing professionals aid the workers at the dried seafood business. At least one of the disabled workers who gather experience at these businesses moves on to be hired at a regular company almost each year.

    "They get very excited on payday," said Oda. "It's important for them to have the opportunity to gather age-appropriate experience like being responsible for a job. For a region battling with a population that is both aging and shrinking, they play an important role in the local economy."

    In the town of Meiwa, Mie Prefecture, Kawada Feather Co. is aiming for a completely new model for employing the disabled. Currently, five to six workers belonging to the public welfare business work at the company's factory on a rotating schedule, and are tasked with removing feathers from collected duvets for recycling. The company pays the welfare business the wages for the workers.

    The plan to involve disabled workers in the recycling was submitted to the municipal social welfare council by Kawada corporate social responsibility promotion division head Takeshi Kuroda. "After the Great East Japan Earthquake disaster, jobs at local automotive components companies for disabled workers fell drastically," he explained.

    "The feather recycling business was born from uncertainty about the future of importing feathers from China, where domestic demand has been growing." Beginning in Mie Prefecture, feather product manufacturers, retailers, and apparel companies joined together to form the corporate group "Green Down Project" in 2015. One of the goals of the group is to increase employment opportunities for people with disabilities. Currently under consideration is a system where member companies of the group would directly hire disabled workers and dispatch them to feather recycling firms.

    "If we can spread feather recycling nationwide, there will be a necessity for workers to collect, remove and package the feathers all over the country," said Kentaro Kawamoto, a Green Down Project director and Rissho University lecturer. "By involving the disabled in this process, we would like to create a model for them to work in regional areas."

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