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Single moms, female nonregular workers in Japan hit hard financially by virus

Chieko Akaishi, right, head of the nonprofit Single Mothers Forum is seen during a news conference in Tokyo on May 19, 2020, as a mother in her 20s from the Hokuriku region speaks of her severe situation amid the coronavirus crisis through a mobile phone. (Mainichi/Satoko Nakagawa)

TOKYO -- Female nonpermanent employees in Japan, particularly single mothers and those with no partners, are suffering grave consequences of the novel coronavirus outbreak, which has exacerbated the current employment situation.

An Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry-conducted survey in March showed that while the number of male nonpermanent workers increased by 20,000 compared to the same month 2019, the figure for women in the same employment status fell by 290,000. Of those women, 250,000 were between 35 and 44 years old, or the core of the child-rearing age demographic. As the number of workers in Japan, both male and female, who have been laid off amid the viral outbreak exceeded 10,000 in May, support networks voice the necessity for immediate relief measures.

Chieko Akaishi, head of the nonprofit organization Single Mothers Forum held a press conference inside the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry on May 19. A single mother in her 20s who is raising a 1-year-old son in the Hokuriku region on the Sea of Japan coast spoke of her devastating situation through a mobile phone prepared for the conference.

"I was able to find a day care center for my son and I was supposed to start working in April, but lost my job. I have limited myself to one meal per day to feed my child," she said.

Chieko Akaishi, head of the nonprofit Single Mothers Forum, is seen in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward in this June 28, 2019 photo. (Mainichi/Eri Misono)

Temporary leave and dismissal from companies has been prevalent among female workers with nonpermanent positions due to the effects of the coronavirus crisis. In particular, financially vulnerable single-mother households are incurring huge damage.

Between March and May 5, Single Mothers Forum received about 380 phone calls and emails asking for help. These include serious cases, such as "Please help me. We only have an emergency stockpile of three packs of rice left," from a mother in her 40s from eastern Japan's Kanto region, and "I can't pay my utility bills and they've been cut off," from a mother in her 30s living in the Tohoku region of northeastern Japan.

Akaishi pointed out that single mothers working as nonpermanent employees are "placed in vulnerable positions as laborers and can be easily cut off by employers. There are cases where such workers cannot even receive paychecks, which are necessary for the application process for taking out emergency loans that support those struggling to survive."

Apart from single mothers, female nonpermanent workers with no partner are also struggling to stay afloat. A 40-year-old woman who handled stage lighting part time at a private theater in Tokyo expressed her concern, saying, "I've had no income at all since April. I can't live if I don't work."

A staff member at General Support Union, a labor union in Tokyo's Setagaya Ward, is seen answering inquiries for a hotline set up jointly by labor unions nationwide to respond to work and life-related concerns amid the novel coronavirus crisis, on May 3, 2020. (Mainichi/Satoko Nakagawa)

The woman lives by herself in an apartment in the capital. Alongside her work at the theater, she worked night shifts at a bar and earned a monthly income of about 200,000 yen. However, both workplaces have temporarily closed. Although she received a temporary leave allowance for the month of March from the theater, she was able to take away only 20,000 yen and has not received any payment for April. She is becoming increasingly anxious that she may not be able to pay the upcoming month's rent.

More than half of female workers in Japan are nonregular workers. Mieko Takenobu, professor emeritus at Wako University in Tokyo and an expert on sociology of labor, commented, "Women are susceptible to being pushed away into unstable nonregular employment, as they also undertake housework and care for children, and are considered as supplementary laborers that live off their husband's income. There are many cases where they are not covered by employment insurance and cannot receive unemployment benefits nor temporary leave allowances. It is a matter of urgency to bolster the system for securing income for nonregular workers, while also enhancing support for their living expenses such as rent."

The internal affairs ministry labor force survey showed that the number of nonpermanent employees in Japan was 21.5 million in March, with 14.73 million of them being female workers. When viewed by age group, the number of female nonpermanent employees aged between 15 and 44 decreased compared to the same month last year, and those aged between 35 and 44 saw a concentrated decrease of 250,000. Those aged 45 and older were subject to limited impact as the number of laborers in this older group has been increasing in recent years.

Meanwhile, the overall number of female workers, including permanent employees, has been on the rise due to the population decline and labor shortages. The number of female workers who are regular employees increased by 580,000 people from the same month of the previous year. However, while the younger generation sees an increase of regular workers with permanent positions, the age group between 35 and 44 remained at a low, with an increase of only about 10,000 people, which highlights once again the unstable nature of employment for this age group.

The labor force survey results for April which will be announced shortly are likely to show even worse results. Michio Goto, professor emeritus of sociology at Tsuru University in the central Japan prefecture of Yamanashi, who is an expert on labor issues, commented, "Changes in the state of affairs regarding employment due to the coronavirus pandemic have been gradually appearing. There is concern that while companies will protect their permanent employees as they're considering their prospects after the outbreak is contained, they will move to dismiss or reduce the number of nonpermanent workers. Developments hereafter should be observed closely."

(Japanese original by Satoko Nakagawa and Hidenori Yazawa, Lifestyle and Medical News Department)

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