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Thursday, Feb. 12, 2004

LABOR PAINS

Osaka firms turning to foreign workers

Red tape blocks job centers from linking employers, potential employees


Second in a series Staff writer OSAKA -- The Imazato district of Osaka has long been home to a large concentration of small and midsize enterprises.

News photo
Tadayuki Yoshitani (left), president of Niitaka Corp., instructs employee Liu Zhijun at the company's headquarters in Osaka. ERIC JOHNSTON PHOTO

Handmade signs on the old wooden houses and modern concrete structures that crowd the narrow back streets reflect the variety of manufacturing and construction businesses.

Many of these firms have been family-owned for generations. For the first few decades of the postwar period, they served as subcontractors to major Japanese corporations, while their employees were all friends, relatives or neighbors of the owner.

But with older employees retiring or leaving, and with fewer younger people around, these small businesses are for the first time looking to foreign workers to help with everything from factory work to sales.

Niitaka Corp., founded in 1931 as a metal design company and now a major subcontractor to construction firms like Takenaka Corp. and Obayashi Corp., is one such firm. Of its 50 employees, four are Chinese.

Liu Zhijun was the first of these to be hired, in the spring of 2001.

"I really wanted to learn as much about business as I possibly could and felt I could get a good job in Japan," said Liu, a graduate of the Osaka University of Foreign Languages.

Niitaka hired him because it hoped he could help the firm expand into China. But taking care of his visa was a difficult process.

"Liu was a graduate of a good Japanese university and fluent in Japanese. But Osaka immigration refused to grant him a working visa," Niitaka President Tadayuki Yoshitani said. "No clear reason was given other than 'you've never hired a Chinese person before.' "

It took a direct appeal from Yoshitani to a couple of Diet members from Osaka to pressure immigration, as well as a visit to the immigration office by Yoshitani, before they granted Liu a work visa.

"Niitaka is unusual in that the president intervened directly with politicians and immigration officials to get me my visa," Liu said.

Yoshitani, meanwhile, stated that: "Other small company presidents have asked me about hiring foreigners. But many would give up rather than fight with immigration or write letters to politicians."

At the Osaka Employment Service Center for Foreigners in Umeda, one of only two such centers in the country run by the labor ministry, officials have seen an explosion in the number of foreigners seeking employment.

"Between April and December, Japanese firms came to our center looking to fill a total of 1,127 jobs for foreign students and 3,546 jobs for those with nonstudent visas," said Yoshikazu Sugaya, a center official.

"These represent (respective) increases of 50 percent and 527 percent over the same period in 2002."

But for a variety of reasons, including a lack of qualified candidates and concerns over the ability of foreign workers to fit into a Japanese workplace, most inquiries did not lead to hiring.

"Only 24 students were hired and only 186 people with nonstudent visas found jobs," Sugaya said.

Nearly 87 percent of the students who visit the center in search of employment after graduation are Chinese, while 60 percent of all foreigners seeking jobs are Chinese, he said.

Any foreigner seeking work in Japan can register with the center, which draws foreigners from as far away as Kyushu. Companies looking for foreign labor can register with the center and view the data of the registered foreigners on file.

Sugaya said Chinese workers who come to the center have usually studied in Japan and are fluent in Japanese.

Other foreigners with work visas are also often pretty good at Japanese, he said. Yet foreigners who are sponsored by an individual Japanese or have spouse visas are usually not that fluent, he said.

Foreigners who lack the necessary linguistic, cultural and technical skills often call the nongovernmental organization Rights of Immigrants Network in Kansai for advice on everything from dealing with employers who refuse to adhere to labor laws to getting a permanent residency visa.

Many callers are from Latin America and Southeast Asia and work at small factories.

"In the Kansai region, there are many Japanese-Brazilians and people from Latin America working in small factories in Shiga -- the factories that often work for subcontractors for the Chubu-based auto parts makers," RINK official Satoru Furuya said.

"We're often asked about how to bring their relatives over to live and work in Japan. But Japanese visa requirements are very strict about who can come and work."

While many Japanese businesses recognize the need to hire foreigners to cope with a burgeoning labor shortage, RINK and other organizations are more concerned that neither the companies nor the government is giving enough attention to the human rights issues that accompany an influx of foreign labor.

To ensure fair treatment of foreign workers, human rights groups want the Japanese government to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families. Japan has not signed the convention, which opened for ratification in July.

"Signing the convention would ensure all foreign workers in Japan would have protection against abusive employers, be able to educate their children at public schools and have access to proper medical care," said Masao Niwa, a Kansai-based lawyer who specializes in foreigners' rights.

Sugaya said the foreign labor center checks on companies seeking foreign workers to prevent exploitation. But this does not include a detailed investigation of whether a company has a history of labor law violations or is connected to yakuza crime syndicates.

The center also helps foreigners find information on Japanese labor laws and their rights as employees.

Many small businesses like Niitaka are meanwhile calling on the central government to make it easier to hire foreign laborers and increase the transparency of immigration procedures.

"For big, brand-name companies, there may be less hassle in hiring foreigners," Yoshitani said. "But for smaller Japanese companies that need foreign labor, immigration rules are often arbitrary and discriminatory."

Liu said the discriminatory treatment is partially due to overblown media reports about foreign crime, especially that committed by Chinese.

"I think the sensationalistic way the media reported the killing of the Japanese family by the Chinese exchange student in Fukuoka has had some effect on the way Japanese companies, and immigration, view Chinese workers and Chinese in general," he said.

But many foreigners apparently find Osaka to be more open to people from other Asian countries compared with Tokyo.

Opinions vary as to why, but many Chinese, Koreans and Japanese say that the traditional Osaka business culture is akin to the way Chinese and Koreans do business, and so employees from those countries fit into small firms there more easily.

Companies, human rights experts and foreign workers agree, nevertheless, that linguistic and cultural barriers are the biggest hurdles for foreigners working at small and midsize firms anywhere in Japan.

"Training in a specialized skill is different from training in Japanese language and culture," Yoshitani said. "Japan has to encourage competency in both if foreign workers are to be integrated successfully into small companies."



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