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Coronavirus leading to heavy job losses among vulnerable workers in Japan

A man from Saitama Prefecture who was suddenly fired from a breadcrumb factory is seen holding a resignation letter he was forced to submit, in this photo taken on April 8, 2020. In the section for noting the reason for his resignation, he wrote, "I was laid off due to unreasonable and selfish reasons." (Mainichi/Atsuko Motohashi, image partially modified)

TOKYO -- Nonpermanent employees placed in a vulnerable position in Japan are facing extreme difficulties after getting laid off during this economic slump due to the novel coronavirus outbreak.

The number of nonpermanent workers in Japan is about 22 million, which accounts for around 40% of all employees. Although the central government has been making a string of proposals to expand measures to maintain employment, it is lagging behind in responding to this unprecedented situation. While investigating the backdrop of the issue, the Mainichi Shimbun heard from several people grieving about their employment status.

"I considered taking my own life as there was no use staying alive," said a man in his 30s from Saitama Prefecture, north of Tokyo. He was suddenly notified that he was getting dismissed from his workplace in late March. He had worked as a contract worker for a breadcrumb factory, before sales contracts for its items used in school lunches, a top-selling product, were dramatically reduced following the start of temporary closures of schools across Japan in March. The company explained, "We have no other choice but to dismiss you as the economy has worsened."

The man had applied to change his employment contract to that of an indefinite period on March 3, and the company accepted the application on March 23. However, it was only three days later that the man received his unemployment notice. Although the man demanded an explanation from the company a number of times, he was forced to write a resignation letter on the spot, as the firm claimed there was no other choice. He commented, "What the company is doing is illegal. I'd like them to give a proper explanation." The man individually joined a labor union that provides consultations for workers from all walks of life, and began negotiations at the end of April demanding that his dismissal be revoked. When asked about the matter, the company commented, "We cannot respond to questions as the issue is being dealt with through an attorney."

The novel coronavirus is hitting the employment statuses of nonpermanent employees hard. According to a survey conducted on about 4,300 workers by the Research Institute for Advancement of Living Standards between April 1 and 3, some 10.6% of contract workers responded that their employment contracts had been terminated due to the novel coronavirus. Meanwhile, 56.8% of part-time workers and 52.7% of dispatch workers answered that their incomes had been reduced.

After the global financial crisis triggered by the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008, numerous cases emerged centering on the manufacturing industry, where the contracts of dispatched workers had been terminated. A total of around 220,000 nonpermanent employees lost their jobs during the period between October 2008 and June 2009, according to a Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry survey in June 2009.

During the current economic downturn, a variety of sectors including the restaurant and hotel industries are incurring great damage. Nobuyuki Shintani, secretary-general of the Research Institute for Advancement of Living Standards, called for swift governmental measures, saying, "If the temporary closures of businesses and moves to stay at home continue for a prolonged period, negative consequences will affect employment and workers on a scale larger than that during the Lehman Brothers crisis."

Sources close to the matter predict that May will be the crunch month for critical conditions faced by dispatch workers. There are approximately 1.44 million dispatch workers in Japan, and 20 to 30% of such employees are set to renew their contracts every three months. Screening for whether a contract can be extended from July to September is conducted in May. "Many people may not be able to extend their contracts," said an executive of a major dispatch company that sends out workers to client companies.

There has also been a rise in cases where employment contracts for dispatch workers are terminated prematurely in the middle of the contract period. Among cases reported to the Japanese Trade Union Confederation, commonly known as Rengo, there was a female dispatch worker residing in Tokyo whose employment contract duration was abruptly changed from the end of June to the end of April, due to circumstances at her workplace. Although dispatch companies are obliged to either find another workplace or provide compensation in this scenario, the woman's dispatch company brushed her off, saying such treatment is difficult. A lawyer with the dispatch company also stated that the situation was "inevitable due to the novel coronavirus."

(Japanese original by Atsuko Motohashi and Hajime Nakatsugawa, Business News Department)

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