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Foreign workers in Japan hit hard by virus job losses need more help: support groups

The Chinese man who lost his job at a duty-free store is seen showing the letter of dismissal he received, via a picture on his phone, in this partially modified photo taken in Saga Prefecture on March 9, 2020. (Mainichi/Shizuka Takebayashi)

Employment conditions for Japan's foreign residents, many of whom work in nonpermanent or fixed-term positions, have continually worsened as the economy is taking a battering from the effects of the novel coronavirus.

Support organizations and others are concerned that foreign residents, who are suddenly losing their jobs or income and don't qualify for welfare public assistance and lack other safety nets, will become unable to support themselves.

At the end of February, a Chinese man in his 20s working at a duty-free store in Saga Prefecture in southwestern Japan received a letter on a single piece of paper from his shop's manager. It read, "We truly regret to inform you that from March 31 you will cease to be employed by us."

Suddenly, he'd been given his notice of dismissal. Until then, he'd been in charge of attending to tourists from China who arrived on cruise ships, among other customers, and had been employed as a full time member of staff with the company for around five months.

The notice went on to say that due to continual cancellations of tours from China as a result of the novel coronavirus, sales were down, and that if the situation improved they promised to approach him again for re-employment.

Born and raised in China, he graduated from a junior college in nearby Nagasaki Prefecture, and then worked part-time at a Chinese restaurant in Saga Prefecture. In October 2019, he applied for a job at the duty-free store, which was hiring full-time employees. He told the Mainichi Shimbun, "My main worry is living now that my income has disappeared." He is yet to find another job.

The 37-year-old manager of the shop where the man worked responded to a request for comment, saying, "The company didn't give me a detailed reason as to why they were letting him go, but reorganization dismissals are happening at our stores across the country. The company made the decision and it can't be helped." Since February, sales have been precipitously low, and the shop has been closed since March. She also said that in her eight years running the store she had never seen a situation like it.

A 42-year-old international relations specialist in Saga Prefecture who was approached by the man who lost his job at the duty-free store, said, "Foreign workers are in a compromised position due to the language barrier and other issues. Municipal governments and companies must regularly introduce them to consultation centers."

A woman in her 30s from Asia who lives on the southwestern island of Kyushu was told in mid-March that the contract she had with her dispatch company had been canceled. She had been aiming to go from being dispatch staff at an airport to a full-time employee there.

She arrived in Japan in 2014, and after studying at a Japanese language school she graduated from a junior college. She worked at a number of different places before finding a position at an airport like the one she had in mind, but her contract was ended mid-training, before she had started the job. She expressed no resentment, saying, "Japanese people are dealing with the same things right now," but now she's leading a hard life while she chips away at her savings.

Because her parents gave her money toward her studies, she vowed not to rest until she made her dream come true, and hasn't been back home once since coming to Japan. There's still time left on her work visa, so now she imagines the day she'll be able to work at an airport, while hoping for the virus to disappear as soon as possible.

Kenji Umeki, 37, a representative of "You Make It," a career support group for foreign nationals that is based in the southwestern Japan city of Fukuoka, is receiving four to five consultations a day at the moment. Among them are people telling him they've lost their part-time work after the shop they were employed at temporarily closed, or they can't pay their rent.

Umeki, who is making efforts to support foreigners find new jobs amid the crisis, said, "Almost all of these people are going to be unable to support themselves in a month." He added, "Many foreign nationals are among the most vulnerable, with no family to rely on. All that can be done is to create work for them, so I want to join with the administrative bodies to offer them help."

(Japanese original by Shizuka Takebayashi, Saga Bureau, and Sayo Kato, Kyushu News Department)

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