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Supermarket staff risk infection, shoppers' ire as labor shortages bite in virus-hit Japan

In this April 7, 2020 file photo, shoppers are seen lining up to buy goods from a supermarket in Chuo Ward, Fukuoka. (Mainichi/Minoru Kanazawa)

TOKYO -- Japan's supermarket employees are being driven to exhaustion from the pressure to keep selling daily necessities and food amid the spread of the novel coronavirus and the increasing numbers of people staying at home.

As shops have become busier, the volume of complaints they receive has also increased, and issues caused by staff shortages have compounded the problems faced by workers.

The Tokyo Metropolitan Government asked residents to refrain from unnecessary outings during the final weekend of March. A woman in her 30s working part-time at a supermarket in Saitama Prefecture, just north of Tokyo, realized then that the uncommonly busy scenes she was seeing at her store conformed to the "three Cs" of confined spaces, crowded places and close contact with people. The government has advised people to avoid these conditions because they greatly increase chances of viral transmission.

Lines to the cash registers were apparently so long that staff couldn't move to restock the shelves. At other times, customers would stand in front of empty toilet paper shelves and ask her if they had any stock round the back, or when the next delivery would arrive. But all she could tell them was that they didn't know yet. Sometimes her answer would provoke anger and further questions.

The supermarket worker tries to keep calm about the rage people show her, saying, "Perhaps it's easier to blame the person who is right in front of you. They must be uneasy." But she added, "I'd like them not to take out their frustrations on us."

On April 7, the government declared a state of emergency for metro Tokyo and six other prefectures nationwide. At a press conference to announce the measures, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe asked supermarkets to stay open.

But according to the National Supermarket Association of Japan, the stores have become even busier as staff shortages have worsened. An association representative said, "What we want is help from the government to secure workers."

The association also reported that sales at the capital region's supermarkets have been rising since around March, when schools were first closed as part of measures to stem coronavirus transmissions. Trade reportedly surged even further on March 26, the day after Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike referred publicly to a potential lockdown of the capital. Since then, sales have remained higher than usual for this time of year.

But because many people are bringing their families with them when shopping, thereby increasing the risks of creating "three C" conditions, association representatives are encouraging customers to bring as few people as possible with them, and for only one person per transaction to line up at the register.

They also said that, in addition to their usual tasks handling products, customers and promotions, staff now face the additional and increasing burden of duties to prevent coronavirus transmissions in their stores, such as cleaning and disinfecting.

Labor shortages are presenting real problems. A head office employee of one of the capital's major supermarkets, which from March onwards has reportedly been seeing sales 20-30% higher than in a normal year, said, "The industry was already short-staffed, but some schools have also stopped students from working part-time jobs (over virus fears), and there are some people who don't want to commute to stores now. We can't forcefully ask people to do these jobs."

They added that the staff shortage has not been resolved even after sending its head-office staff out to its stores, and that many of its supermarkets have instead shortened their business hours.

Amid these difficulties, the supermarket association is making strong calls for customers to improve their behavior. "There are workers out there who are suffering emotional pain from being subject to verbal abuse. When they're being asked about when goods will be delivered, that's an interruption of their working time. We ask that customers please do their part, too."

(Japanese original by Tomoko Igarashi, City News Department)

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