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Women frozen out of Japanese workforce amid pandemic facing poverty

"Even if I look for office work, I can't find any jobs," one woman tells the Mainichi Shimbun on Oct. 22, 2021. (Mainichi/Natsuko Ishida)

TOKYO -- The ranks of Japan's long-unemployed women have swelled with the coronavirus pandemic. According to a Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications labor survey, from April to June this year the average number of women out of a job for more than six months hit 340,000, far outstripping the average of 280,000 for 2020.

    The number has stayed high since autumn that year. Support groups are warning that prolonged unemployment risks are damaging women's family relationships and their children's educational environment, and are calling on the government for aid.

    "I was hoping to get an office job, but the number of wanted ads for those shrank before my eyes when the pandemic hit," a single mother in her 30s living in Tokyo told the Mainichi Shimbun. Last year, she worked for a tax office for four months on a short-term contract, but was let go when it expired that April. She spent the next eight months looking for a job, without success.

    Before infections began spreading in Japan in spring 2020, she had been living on work introduced by staffing agencies and other non-permanent jobs. The agencies continued trying to get her into open positions after the tax office, but she was rejected by dozens of companies. During that time, she went to a vocational school to study bookkeeping, accounting in English and other office skills, but her luck did not turn.

    Needing money and with no other choice, she eventually took a part-time job as a cashier at a 100-yen shop (equivalent to a dollar store). The work only brought in about 100,000 yen (approx. $880) per month, about half her pre-pandemic income.

    "I want to change jobs, so that I can save for my child's education," she said. "I've been rejected at the paper application phase for so many jobs, and I get really down thinking it might all be my own fault."

    There are now more and more women just like her, who want to work but have long been out of regular employment. According to the internal affairs ministry survey, the average number of women out of a job for six-plus months began to rise in the July-September period last year, and hit 340,000 in the October-December quarter. In the following January-March period, it rose again to 360,000, before returning to 340,000 the next quarter. The survey only counts those who have searched for work in the last week of each month as "unemployed," so the true figure is thought to be higher.

    Furthermore, about 50% of all those out of a job for more than a year were non-permanent workers. A Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare official working on the issue told the Mainichi, "There are a lot of non-permanent female staff in the restaurant and accommodation sectors, which were hit particularly hard by the pandemic. It's also certainly possible that, if both men and women apply for an open position, the men are given priority."

    In August this year, the ratio of open positions to job applicants was 1.14. That is, there are slightly more positions available than there are job-seekers to fill them. However, there is a lot of variation depending on the sector. In fields like nursing care or construction, there are three to eight times as many job openings as there are applicants. Meanwhile, the ratio for general administrative posts is 0.28, meaning there are nearly four applicants for every job.

    Another labor ministry official commented, "It appears there are a lot of people who want to go back to the same kinds of jobs that they had before going jobless. There are also cases where people can't search for work in the way they'd want due to temporary closures of day care centers and other circumstances." In other words, there could be a mismatch between job openings and job seekers' situations.

    "The number of days one can get unemployment benefits needs to be expanded," says Ren Onishi, head of the nonprofit group Moyai Support Centre for Independent Living, in Tokyo's Shinjuku Ward on Oct. 15, 2021. (Mainichi/Natsuko Ishida)

    Prolonged unemployment can lead to poverty, and "poverty is increasing compared to last year," said Masako Komori, of the incorporated nonprofit organization "Single Mothers' Forum. "And this is impacting children's education, such as when parents can't afford to pay their internet bills and their kids can't take part in online classes for school, even if they're available."

    According to the Tokyo-based nonprofit group Moyai Support Centre for Independent Living, which provides meals to those in poverty, it now distributes food to 400 people, up from 60 to 80. And about 20% of those 400 are women, while the number of children brought along has become noticeable.

    Moyai's head Ren Onishi told the Mainichi, "People who had low incomes from before the pandemic have lost their jobs, and can't find another one, so they are in deep poverty. The national government needs to step in with support, including increasing the vocational training benefit and raising the number of days people can get unemployment benefits."

    (Japanese original by Natsuko Ishida, Lifestyle and Medical News Department)

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