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July 19, 2007 6:07 pm

Signs betray ‘hidden workers’ of Japan

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Plonked in farmland hundreds of miles from Tokyo lies Sony’s factory producing Bravia liquid crystal display television sets. Inside, thousands of workers assemble components that have helped Sony to regain its lead in consumer electronics, propelling its LCD TVs to the world’s top-selling brand.

But on the factory floor, the crisp, staccato tones of Japanese are overwhelmed by the softer strains of another language altogether. Signs posted in the women’s toilet are in Portuguese. Inquiry reveals that half of Sony’s 1,600 factory workers are of Japanese-Brazilian descent.

Sony, along with Toyota, Suzuki and many other blue-chip Japanese companies, has over the past decade recruited hundreds of thousands of second- and third-generation Japanese-Brazilians, as young Japanese willing to undertake factory jobs are in short supply.

Japan’s official line is that it does not allow the immigration of unskilled foreign labourers. But these “hidden workers” – from Chinese clerks at convenience stores to African construction workers – are everywhere thanks to legal loopholes. Companies usually hire them through haken gaisha, or labour brokers, which means part-timers are not included in their official employee tally.

Officially, Suzuki, the car and motorbike maker, has about 100 Japanese-Brazilian employees. But the city office in Hamamatsu, the carmaker’s headquarters, estimates that nearly half of the 27,000 workers at its Suzuki factory here are of Brazilian descent.

Japanese-Brazilians have been integral in helping carmakers and other Japanese manufacturers regain pole position overseas. “The reality is that if there were no Brazilians, these factories could not survive,” says Hidehiro Imanaka, director of the international affairs division of the Hamamatsu city office. “The tatemae [the face one displays in public] is that there is no immigration, but the reality is that Japan needs workers. This is the contradiction of its immigration policy.”

The origins of Brazilians in Japan go back nearly two decades. In 1990, the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Law came into force, allowing descendants of Japanese immigrants – down to the third generation – to obtain three-year visas. Since then, the population of Japanese-Brazilians has more than quadrupled to 274,700.

That population is concentrated in the industrial seaside town of Hamamatsu in western Japan, currently 19,000 strong, having swollen from only 1,500 in 1990. The city office estimates that nearly 90 per cent of the populace works at nearby vehicle and electronics factories.

Their impact on the local community is tangible. Brazilian grocery stores stand alongside driving schools that teach in Portuguese.

But the rigid nature of factory work and long hours have taken their toll on the Brazilian-Japanese community. The vast majority of workers lack medical insurance and are not enrolled in the national pension scheme. Toshifumi Nakayasu, leader of a labour union in Hamamatsu, says it is the responsibility of the haken gaisha to arrange medical insurance and pension plans. Most, however, decline to because it is too costly.

“If a company has more than five employees, it is mandatory that their employees are enrolled in the country’s social insurance plan,” says Mr Nakayasu. “The Japanese government looks the other way.”

Many Brazilian-Japanese speak only rudimentary Japanese and can neither read nor write it. “Compared with the first wave of immigrants in the early nineties, the current generation has a lower level of both skills and education, and the language barriers are worse,” says Mr Imanaka.

Toshio Naruse, a Japanese-Brazilian who operates Ebras Escola Brasil, a Brazilian school in Hamamatsu, says many children end up working in factories once they reach the legal age.

“In the competition between work and school, work always wins,” says Mr Naruse.

“Children can work from 15 and earn as much as their parents do.”

Brazilian-Japanese have had a strong presence in the community for nearly two decades, yet Mr Naruse says many are trapped in a vicious cycle of low-level jobs. “In Brazil, most people would not deign to be garbage collectors. But in Japan, suddenly it is acceptable to work in a factory because everyone else does.”

Japan’s Keidanren, the most powerful business lobby, has been a vocal proponent of relaxing the immigration law to allow more foreign workers.

But critics say companies view such employees as a source of cheap labour only and are reluctant to integrate them properly into the workforce by teaching them Japanese, and to put foreigners on a management track.

“Japan is busy forging free trade agreements with Asian countries, which regulates the flow of people as well as goods. But it also has to think about the integration of foreigners,” says Mr Imanaka.

“This is Japan’s model for the future, but it needs to put clear-cut rules into place for it to function properly.”

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