Please view the main text area of the page by skipping the main menu.

'People at the bottom get discarded': Laborers in Tokyo scheme lose work for whole month

A 73-year-old man living in a park in Tokyo is seen on July 28, 2021. (Mainichi/Harumi Kimoto)

Tokyo's summer heat is being cited as the reason for rescinding day labor jobs some people in need in Tokyo rely on for income.

    For the first time this year, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government chose to suspend throughout August land cleanup and other day labor jobs it offers people in need. The measure was ostensibly to prevent heatstroke from the capital's searing summer temperatures, but a Mainichi Shimbun investigation showed the staging of the Olympic and Paralympic Games also emerged as an apparent factor.

    In mid-July this reporter went on a patrol with a group supporting Tokyoites in need, and asked homeless people about changes in their lives. One 73-year-old man revealed, "I've got absolutely no work for August." He laid a strip of cardboard on the ground in the park and huddled alongside his companions.

    He has been sleeping rough for about 30 years. His life on the streets began after he underwent mental strain losing a succession of family members. He drifted from regular employment as an engineer. "When I thought I'd get back on my feet, it was too late," he said.

    The man's sole income source is day labor jobs the Tokyo Metropolitan Government arranges as part of special employment measures for people in hardship. He works three to four times monthly, making 20,000 to 30,000 yen. His earnings go toward food, coin lockers to store his belongings and internet cafe charges when he shelters at them during bad weather.

    People sleeping rough need to use money they earn from day jobs to pay for coin-operated lockers like the ones shown in this photo taken in Tokyo on July 26, 2019. (Mainichi/Hiromi Makino)

    Around this spring, he learned about the August special employment measure jobs suspension. His August income will be zero. "I've got to save on food expenses, go to the soup kitchen more often maybe, and do something to survive," he said. "Before there were places that let you work even if you don't have an address, but now they all need one. It's a struggle even trying to fill the income gaps with other jobs."

    According to the metropolitan government's work promotion division, Tokyo's special employment measures project began in 1972 in the capital's Sanya district home to many day laborers. It was intended as "supplementary" and to help people when other work became scarce. Workers subject to it primarily did cleaning and weeding on metropolitan government-owned land including parks, bay landfill sites and prefectural roads. The metropolitan government outsources the work to the private sector, which hires laborers. Daily pay is about 8,000 yen (about $72.90) for 5 1/2 hours work. In fiscal 2020, 1,529 people used the scheme, 90% of whom were 60 or older.

    In May 2019, a man in his 50s working at one site collapsed and later died at the place he was taken to. The connection between the heat and his death was unclear, but the day in question was reportedly very hot.

    In the wake of the incident, the metropolitan government introduced measures to counter heatstroke among the system's users, and the measures were enhanced this fiscal year. In July and September, if the next day's heat index forecast is "dangerous (in principle warranting the cancellation of exercise)," the following day's work is suspended. In fiscal 2020, it emerged that most August days were "dangerous," leading officials to suspend work for all of August this fiscal year.

    Following this move, seven system users who argued the suspension was a life-and-death matter for them went to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government headquarters on Aug. 4 to seek revision of the move.

    But a metropolitan government official refused to admit them into the building, citing a special period of caution while the Olympics were in progress. As a result, their discussion with the metropolitan government took on an unusual form: A Tokyo official stood on the metropolitan government building's grounds while the laborers stood on the road and talked across the boundary.

    A talk between users of the special employment measures project and the Tokyo Metropolitan Government regarding its suspension was carried out at the edge of the metropolitan government site, on the grounds that special security precautions were being taken during the Tokyo Olympics. (Mainichi/Harumi Kimoto)

    The official emphasized that the special employment measures project's purpose was to "complement" other work, and told the laborers it was difficult to make a living through it alone. It was during this conversation that circumstances other than heatstroke countermeasures came to light.

    The work's content is based on needs that various metropolitan government bureaus convey to the work promotion division, but the official said there had been no requests from the metropolitan government bureaus.

    "The number of metropolitan government-owned bay landfill sites has decreased significantly, and fewer people are littering on roads. Plus, with emission regulations on prefectural roads, they're not getting as dirty. In actual fact we're under pressure to cut the amount of work," the official said. Metropolitan government-owned land in bay landfill sites is decreasing because it is being sold to private firms and transferred to local wards.

    But there appeared to be another reason: the staging of the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games. According to the Tokyo Bay administration office, part of the port and harbor landfill area has been leased to bodies including the Games' organizing committee. Leased land is out of the metropolitan government's jurisdiction, and therefore not covered by the special employment project. Some previously empty plots have been turned into paved parking lots, and there is a possibility that weeding work that was done on the vacant sites will decrease once the land returns to the metropolitan government.

    The Olympic monument is pictured in Tokyo's Minato Ward on Dec. 1, 2020. (Mainichi/Toshiki Miyama)

    One man in his 60s who visited the Tokyo Metropolitan Government building on Aug. 4 with the other workers said, "Last year at the port and harbor landfill site we were saying there'll be Olympic facilities here so there'll probably be more work."

    The 73-year-old man, meanwhile, expressed distrust toward officials connected to the Olympic and Paralympic Games, saying, "'I wonder if they didn't want us needy people seen. People at the bottom always get discarded at times like this."

    Another 68-year-old homeless man from the Sanya district commented, "The government offices tell us, 'If you can no longer make a living, you can get livelihood protection,' but that doesn't work in practice." He has received livelihood protection in the past, and recalled, "I was paid 120,000 to 130,000 yen (about $1,100 to $1,200), but when I went into a facility, that left me with only about 20,000 yen (about $180)."

    Furthermore, if a person earns additional income while receiving livelihood protection payments, they have to repay that amount. "I was able to receive unemployment insurance from my previous job, but had to return that to the government office," he said. "To go as far as to give back unemployment insurance that I was entitled to after working hard just so I could receive livelihood protection -- I couldn't go along with that and stopped getting it," he said.

    People wait in line for food distributed to people in need, in Tokyo's Shibuya Ward on July 27, 2021. (Mainichi/Shinji Kurokawa)

    Ren Ohnishi, the director of incorporated nonprofit organization Moyai Support Centre for Independent Living, based in Tokyo's Shinjuku Ward, commented, "The situation is that people are living on cash payments from this business alone, and there are people for whom these are the last jobs to support them. The metropolitan government needs to be aware of that."

    Ohnishi continued, "This year public work should be increasing in connection with coronavirus vaccination facilities. Rather than just outsourcing to private temp agencies and the like, I'd like them to flexibly provide jobs together with welfare work and employment measures."

    (Japanese original by Harumi Kimoto, Digital News Center)

    Also in The Mainichi

    The Mainichi on social media