The economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic has taken a toll on the employment and daily lives of foreign workers in Japan, despite their number hitting a record high of around 1.72 million in 2020.
Foreign workers who have lost jobs due to the economic downturn are financially struggling as they have not received sufficient support, with labor experts urging the government to offer more help.
One such worker is Raquel Garcia, a 45-year-old Filipino who worked at a Sharp Corp. factory in Taki, Mie Prefecture in central Japan until being laid off late last year.
Garcia had worked at the plant for nine years as a staffer dispatched by a subcontractor of the major electronic manufacturer.
Amid the virus pandemic, Garcia was furloughed by the subcontractor in August, before eventually being laid off in November together with about 100 other employees, mostly also Philippine nationals.
"Why are we (foreigners) the first to be fired when companies are in a pinch?" she said.
Garcia, who came to Japan in 2003, said the subcontractor only told her business was bad and that there was no prospect of recovery for the time being.
With Garcia having to make do with unemployment benefits whose amount is 50-80 percent of the average salary of the past six months of one's previous job, she has had to reduce the amount of money she sends to the two daughters she left behind in the Philippines and now relies on a food bank.
"As I barely make ends meet, I just wish I could work," said Garcia. But her chances of finding a new job have been hampered by the fact that her limited literacy skills in Japanese make it difficult for her to get a driving license, limiting her to infrequent public transport in the Mie Prefecture area where she lives.
A Mie Prefecture-based labor union, which Garcia belongs to, runs Japanese-language classes for foreigners and lends money to those who want to obtain driving licenses.
The union's chairman, Hojo Hirooka, said, "Although the government says it is seeking the coexistence of (Japanese) people and foreigners, it only provides limited support for the latter. It has not taken action."
The Japanese Trade Union Confederation, also known as Rengo and the country's largest labor organization, held its first event to provide consultation for non-Japanese workers in January on issues such as trouble related to contracts, salary and other working conditions.
One of the participants was a Filipino who has worked for 14 years as a regular employee. The worker complained of unequal treatment of foreigners and expressed fear of being laid off for consulting with somebody about the issue, according to Rengo.
Haruhisa Yamaneki, a senior official of Rengo, called for urgent support for non-Japanese workers, saying that while they are in "a weak position" already, many have fallen "into a more difficult situation."
The Japanese government has been seeking to boost foreign workers at a time when the world's third-largest economy is coping with a chronic labor shortage caused by the declining birthrate and aging population.
The number of foreign workers in Japan hit a record high of 1,724,328 as of October 2020, increasing 4.0 percent from a year earlier.
The pace of rise was nevertheless down from a 13.6 percent surge recorded the previous year, according to the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry, with the pandemic hitting early in 2020.
Most workers were permanent residents or spouses of Japanese, totaling 546,469. The next largest group was technical interns, whose number climbed 4.8 percent to 402,356. Those working under a new visa status created in 2019 to attract more blue-collar workers in labor-hungry industries stood at 7,262.
The government-sponsored technical internship program was introduced in 1993 with the aim of transferring skills to developing countries, but has been criticized as being a cover for companies to import cheap labor from other Asian nations.
Yoshihisa Saito, an associate professor of labor law at Kobe University, pointed out that some essential industrial realms, such as agriculture and nursing care, have difficulty in recruiting Japanese workers given the level of salaries and other benefits, creating a need for foreign workers.
"To fundamentally solve the problem, it is necessary to establish a better set of working conditions and environment, to make it easier for both Japanese and foreigners to work," said Saito.