Cheap labor market will have to make do without Chinese workers
As the media so loudly pointed out, a large number of foreign residents left Japan right after the earthquake of March 11, mainly due to fears of radiation from the crippled Fukushima Daiichi reactor. According to the Mainichi Shimbun, most have returned, or, at least, those who worked in nominally white collar jobs did. For instance, about 40 percent of the foreign language teachers at Berlitz went home, and since then 90 percent have returned.
The situation is much different when it comes to low-wage laborers, particularly those from China. The foreign trainee program has been badly hit. Many people believe that the program, which is supposed to offer people from foreign countries the opportunity to learn skills in Japan, is more or less a front for trafficking cheap labor, and the agricultural and textile industries are heavily dependent on workers from Asia. The Asahi Shimbun reports that before the earthquake there were about 40,000 foreign trainees working at Japanese textile companies, 99 percent of whom were Chinese. Almost all of them went home and very few have returned.
An association in Dalian that processes potential trainees for work in Japan told the Asahi that before the earthquake there were five applicants for every potential job opening, but now there are none. Another association that helps Chinese pass the test to be accepted in the trainee program said that all 50 people who passed a test to work at a marine products processing plant in Chiba Prefecture have now changed their mind and are staying in China. In almost all these cases the Chinese trainees are quite young, which means the decision to leave Japan or not go in the first place was made by their parents. Since China still has a one-child policy, a parent may not want to risk the health of his or her only child.
The effect on business has been significant. A sewing factory in Tokyo told the Asahi that all its Chinese trainees went home after the earthquake, and while they’ve been replaced with more expensive Japanese workers, the company has only been able to complete 70 percent of its orders on time since then. The company president said that he is now reviewing his participation in the trainee program. Another textile company in the hard-hit Tohoku region tried desperately to keep its Chinese workers after the quake, but all 29 had left by the end of March. In April, the company’s sales were off by ¥10 million. “If I add the costs of training to their wages,” the president said, “then Chinese trainees end up costing more than Japanese workers.” He plans to stop “accepting” trainees in the near future.
The fast food industry has also been affected, since foreign students make up a good portion of the industry’s work force. The ramen chain Hidakaya has 250 restaurants throughout Japan and before the earthquake 1,400 of its employees were foreign part-timers, 90 percent of them Chinese. Half have left since then, and the company has had to shorten business hours at some 50 outlets by as much as four hours a day.
The gyudon (beef bowl) chain Yoshinoya told the Mainichi that 200 employees quit in the week after the quake, or about one-fourth of its foreign work staff. Stores have had to share employees to stay open, and the company is soliciting new employees. To attract Japanese workers, it’s likely the restaurant chains will have to offer higher wages, which will probably mean an increase in the prices of the dishes. Even convenience stores are suffering. One temp company told Asahi that 3,000 Chinese part-timers working at 1,000 Tokyo area convenience stores quit right after the quake and have yet to be replaced.