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JAPAN: Foreign Workers' Grievances Erupt At Rally
By Catherine Makino
TOKYO 10 Mar, 2008: With its own population both aging and declining, Japan needs migrant workers to sustain its economy. But the government’s failure to formulate an accommodative policy was evident at a rally in the capital on Sunday attended by some 300 foreign workers.
Waving banners and shouting slogans such as "stop discrimination against foreign workers" and "Japanese look at us like we’re terrorists,’’ workers from different parts of the globe marched through the capital’s Shibuya district.

Protestors from the United States, Canada, South America, Europe, Asia and Africa heard angry speeches over a variety of grouses and frustrations, such as a trend towards hiring the cheapest available foreign labour and exploit it to the maximum.

"In Japan, companies that hire foreign workers as cheap labour must stop," Ippei Torii, leader of the Zen-tooitsu Workers Union, yelled to the group. "Chinese are brought here to work in farms and factories for only 300 yen (three US dollars) to 500 yen (five dollars) an hour." Wage per hour in Japan averages 650 yen (6.3 dollars), but differs according to prefecture and industry.

The aim of Sunday’s demonstration was to raise awareness of the problems faced by foreign workers like exploitation, fixed-term contracts and low wages, said Canadian Michael Paul, a manager at the Universal Language Institute.

"It’s about increasing people’s awareness about the job situation in Japan," Paul said. "Workers’ rights are under threat because of outsourcing and contracts, and it keeps getting worse and worse.’’

While the Japanese society is famed for its xenophobic attitudes, the fact is that Japan is already a multi-cultural society, said Louis Carlet, deputy secretary-general of the National Union of General Workers (NUGW) in Tokyo.

"It’s time we demand equality for foreigners, the disabled, women and workers of all employment types," Carlet said. ‘’We can build a healthy society based on cooperation and compassion, not on unfair competition."

In 2005, deaths outnumbered births in Japan by 10,000 and some projections say that, on current trends, the present 127 million population could dwindle to around 100 million by 2050.

This has forced the government to review its policies on migrant labour but, on the ground, foreigners remain vulnerable to easy firing because of shaky contracts. ‘’The typical one-year contract can leave foreign employees in a state of limbo, fearing arbitrary non-renewals -- a concept alien to most Japanese workers,’’ Carlet said.

Foreign workers are denied basic benefits, including unemployment and health insurance, despite Japan’s status as a developed country.

NUGW receives around 600 complaints annually relating to job security at language schools alone. Of NUGW’s 2,600 members 80 percent are teachers while about ten percent work for newspapers. NUGW is one of Tokyo’s few unions with a large non-Japanese representation while the Zen-tooitsu Workers Union’s members are predominantly Central Asian, African or Brazilian.

The main goal of most unions is to achieve permanent employment status for foreign workers. Right now, most foreign workers are regarded as ‘perma-temp’ (permanently temporary) workers.

Sandra Shoji from the U.S., who has worked as a university professor for 20 years, wants job security like the majority of language teachers rather than the fixed contracts with little assurance of renewal.

"It’s difficult not knowing year-to-year whether you’ll have a job next year. You’re offered only one or two classes to teach and that is not enough, so you end up teaching at five different universities. If you complain, you’ll be downgraded to one class or get fired,’’ Shoji said.

The days when foreign teachers received fixed tenures are gone. "There are fewer students today due to the dropping birth rate," she says. "It happened about three years ago, they wanted to give the foreign language and culture jobs to Japanese teachers."

Japan’s Nova Corp., the language school chain which went bankrupt last year and laid off hundreds of teachers. The mostly Australian workers were left stranded in Japan without any money.

For Paola Chagas, who came to Japan five years ago from Brazil to be with her Japanese mother, safety issues and low salaries are her biggest concern. She got a deep gash at work and wants her company to pay the medical bills. She only receives about 800 yen or about eight dollars per hour.

Japanese and foreign workers get vastly different kinds of treatment, Chagas said. "We miss out on bonuses and benefits paid to our Japanese co-workers and paid holidays. We are battling to make employers follow the country’s labour laws."
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