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In Japan, laid off can also mean homeless

As major Japanese companies cut their work forces in the economic downturn, many  workers are finding themselves out on the street because they have to move out of company-run dorms.
Image: A homeless man walks with his belongings through a park in Tokyo
A homeless man walks with his belongings through a park in Tokyo on Dec. 26.Itsuo Inouye / AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

In corporate Japan, losing your job can mean losing your home as well.

As major companies cut their work forces in the economic downturn, many Japanese workers are finding themselves out on the street because they have to move out of company-run dormitories.

Sadanori Suzuki was one of them.

The 26-year-old lost his job at a car factory in December, and by mid-January he was kicked out of the dorm run by his employer. He moved from Internet cafes — which often have private rooms and double as flop houses — to "capsule" hotels, which are coffin-like individual compartments just for sleeping. But within two weeks he was nearly broke and out on the street.

He found his way to a Shinto shrine in Kawagoe, a Tokyo suburb, where he planned to take temporary refuge. But the worship hall was locked. Exasperated, Suzuki set fire to the shrine, then called police from a nearby pay phone and turned himself in. When he was arrested, last week, he had only 10 yen (11 cents).

A lost safety net
In a country where lifetime employment has long been held up as an idealized standard, Japanese are finding out fast that the unemployment safety net for part-time, temporary or contract workers has become painfully obsolete.

"In Japan, people quite often become homeless as soon as they lose their jobs," said Makoto Yuasa, head of Independent Life Support Center, a grass-roots activist group. "There is no protection for people who are able to work but are out of jobs."

On Monday, the government reported that the Japanese economy shrank at its fastest rate in 35 years in the fourth quarter — at an annual pace of 12.7 percent — and shows no signs of reversing course anytime soon. It is more than triple the 3.8 percent annualized contraction in the U.S. in the same quarter.

According to the latest government estimates, released last month, some 125,000 part-time workers will lose their jobs by March. Labor officials cannot follow what happens to all those who lose their employment, but of the 45,800 who have been tracked, the government found 2,700 became homeless.

Private estimates go much higher — to upward of 400,000 new jobless by the end of next month — and say more than 30,000 of them will become homeless, nearly double the country's nationwide homelessness figure. By the official count, the number of homeless is 16,000 and has been slightly decreasing for several years.

"This is just the beginning," said Hitoshi Ichikawa, a ministry official in charge of labor policies. "There will be many more in coming weeks and months."

The wide use of temps in manufacturing was only legalized in 2004, allowing corporate giants such as Toyota Motor Corp. and Canon Inc. to rely on seasonal workers. Using temporary workers allows companies to adjust production to gyrating overseas demand through hiring agencies that often provide dormitories.

Nearly one-third of the Japanese work force is made up of temporary workers, including 3.8 million bottom-tier workers who are sent countrywide to provide labor on demand.

A key to Japan's fragile economic recovery has been the explosion in temporary employment agencies, brokers who allow corporations to take on labor without having to pay benefits — and then unload workers at will. Another factor is "freeters" — a growing segment of young people who choose to move from one part-time job to the next.

Independent union organizer Makoto Kawazoe said temporary workers are given low-paying, tough factory jobs, with an average basic monthly salary of about 150,000 yen ($1,650), barely enough to make ends meet. When they are laid off and evicted from employer-provided housing, they often have no savings. Three-quarters of Japan's temporary workers earn less than 2 million yen ($21,740) a year.

"They have no choice but rely on their job agencies to find another job that comes with a dormitory," Kawazoe said. "Once you get trapped in the cycle, it's very difficult to get out."

The job-with-a-room package allows job agencies to supply workers who can start the job right away, without wasting time finding a place to live, Kawazoe said. "It's a scheme to attract the poor to take the low-paying, hard labor and keep them in the system."

2.7 million unemployed
Japan's unemployment rate jumped in December to 4.4 percent, up 0.5 points from a month earlier. That means 2.7 million people are out of jobs, up 390,000 from the previous year. The number of people on government welfare has risen by more than 46,000 since last year. In Tokyo and major cities across the country, welfare rolls rose 35 percent in January alone.

On the streets, the statistics are becoming a visible reality.

The government-run Hello Work job agencies are packed with young jobseekers, many carrying duffel or shopping bags with their belongings. They apply for a one-time 100,000 yen ($1,090) allowance and low-rent housing, which opposition lawmakers and advocacy groups say is far too little.

In a parliamentary debate last week, Economy Minister Kaoru Yosano urged companies to do more to protect their workers.

"Major companies have a social responsibility to sustain their work force," he said. "They are useless if they ignore that responsibility."

But Prime Minister Taro Aso — who has promised to create 1.6 million jobs over the next three years — said the government has put in place programs such as housing loans and subsidies to companies to maintain their work forces.

"We have provided support for those who have lost both jobs and homes, and we'll continue to take appropriate steps," he told a parliamentary session Monday.

Temp showers, tent village
Even so, the situation has gotten so bad that some Tokyo neighborhood offices have set up temporary showers for those who need to clean up before resuming their job search.

Over the New Year holidays, a tent village set up by a group of labor union members in Tokyo's Hibiya Park was almost instantly filled, prompting the Labor Ministry to open a nearby public gymnasium to accommodate the overflow. Hundreds came from out of town when word got around. The government later made available vacant public housing for 4,000 people in several locations in Tokyo through a relief package of financial aid and rent.

Companies say they are also working to respond. Toyota has announced it will slash its temporary workers by 1,700 through March — from 4,700 — by not extending their contracts. But it has promised to shift some to full-time positions or transfer them to subsidiaries or affiliates.

"We are doing the best we can," a Toyota spokesman said on condition of anonymity, because of the sensitivity of the topic.

From December, Toyota has also started allowing temporary workers to stay at company-run dormitories for up to a month without charge.

Before that, a temp worker had only three days to pack up and leave.