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LABOUR-JAPAN: Brazilian Japanese Organise Against Joblessness

Catherine Makino

TOKYO, Feb 10 2009 (IPS) - Rodney Freitas, 24, is happy to see Brazilians of Japanese descent organising themselves at time when Japan’s economy is cooling down and many are in danger of losing jobs or are already unemployed.

“This is a good opportunity for Brazilians to go to the unions and ask for help in solving their problems and learning their rights,” says Frietas, a Brazilian Japanese himself. “No good going to the factories for help because the Japanese system is not good.”

Freitas believes that the best defence in the present situation is ‘’big gatherings’’ of the type that happened on Feb. 2 when some 1,500 Brazilians marched down the streets of Nagoya protesting against job losses.

Men, women and children raised placards with slogans saying, “We want to work,” and “We want houses,” and “We want education.” Their children, who marched with them, yelled, “We want to study.”

Nagoya, one of the nation’s economic centres, is home to Toyota Motor Corp., a major employer of foreign labour.

On the same day, to be heard where it matters, about 300 Brazilians and their supporters marched through central Tokyo waving national flags and chanting, “Give us employment,’’ “Don’t desert us,” and “We don’t have secure housing’’.

“It is the first time they [Brazilians] could meet others in the same situation and share the same fears,’’ Naoko Shimizu, leader of the Part-timers, Freeters and Foreign Workers’ Union, told IPS. (Freeter is the Japanese term for young, part-time temporary worker).

“Sometimes the police stop us in unjust ways,’’ Shimizu said. ‘’However, we will continue to express ourselves through protests and demonstrations,’’ she said.

A priority for the unions is to secure housing for members. One plan is to buy up some of the many unoccupied apartment buildings in Tokyo and offer them to workers at low rent. ‘’We will do it soon since there will be many more layoffs in March,’’ Shimizu said.

Union members are anxious, Shimizu said. “When they do find a job they receive low salaries, and can be fired anytime and be thrown out of company dormitories. They’re treated like disposable workers.’’

Historically, because of its homogeneity, Japanese society has viewed outsiders – even those with Japanese roots like most Brazilians – with suspicion.

Brazilian Japanese do not have the protection that Japanese workers do or have strong links within Japanese society to help them cope. Most cannot speak Japanese or have the right skills to readily find alternate jobs.

As long as the economy needed labourers, an estimated 320,000 Brazilians toiled in Japan, mostly at unskilled factory jobs. Many were employed by the electronics industries or by automobile giants like Suzuki, Honda and Toyota.

Last year manufacturers, who had hired Brazilians and other South Americans as temporary hands at their factories, started cutting jobs because of the deteriorating economy and the Japanese yen’s rise against other currencies.

‘’The situation is hopeless,’’ says Evaristo Higa, a Brazilian Catholic priest of Japanese ancestry who is involved with a food and rescue mission for the unemployed.

“More than 50 percent of Brazilians are now unemployed, they don’t have money to buy food or pay for their homes,’’ Higa told IPS. “Some were forced out of company dormitories and had to find homes… most can’t afford the rents.’’

‘’They say they are willing to take on jobs like working in nursing homes for the elderly, but these are not easily available because of the language barrier… and things can only get worse in the spring,’’ Higa said.

Reports say that many Brazilians migrants have started to return home. But a survey conducted by Higa in December indicated that 70 percent preferred to stay on because the economy in Brazil is not conducive to finding employment. “But, if you ask me in a month maybe it will be different,’’ he said optimistically.

Many are worried for their children and say they cannot afford school tuitions. As stop-gap Higa has organised volunteer groups to educate the kids, “or else there’s nothing for them to do but stay home with their parents’’.

According to Louis Carlet of the National Union of General Workers, the Brazilians are the easiest to fire because most of them do not speak Japanese.

‘’There is a pecking order when it comes to firings. First, the foreigners get fired, who are usually the Brazilians. Then Japanese women, part-time workers and finally regular workers,” Carlet said.

Brazilians form the third-largest foreign community – after Koreans and Chinese – in Japan. Most are descendents of waves of Japanese immigration to Brazil that began in 1908.

Encouraged by the Japanese government, which saw migration as a way to relieve poverty and population pressures, nearly 200,000 had arrived by the beginning of World War ll. An additional 63,000 came in the postwar era.

Japan officially stopped sending migrants to Brazil in 1973. Today there are 1.3 million Brazilians of Japanese descent living in Brazil, forming the largest Japanese community living outside Japan.

In more recent decades, Brazil’s economic problems spurred a reverse flow. Japanese Brazilians began emigrating to Japan in large numbers after 1990 when Japan made it easier for foreigners of Japanese descent to enter the country with a view to filling a shortage of manual labour.

With growing pressures, such as the ‘greying’ of its population’ the Japanese government has been seeing the need to do more. On Jan. 9 it began a programme of helping foreign workers, especially Brazilians, obtain permanent residence status, find jobs and avail of Japanese language education for themselves and for their children.

“The decision is welcome and we are working together to implement these measures as soon as the measures are compiled,” said an official at the Brazilian Embassy asking not to be identified.

The official emphasised Brazil’s strong relations with Japan. “We have excellent and traditional bilateral relations. Last year, for example, we celebrated 100 years of the Japanese immigration to Brazil, with many cultural and sport events.”

Employers like Toyota have been pitching in to help young Brazilian Japanese – especially when it makes business sense.

About eight years ago Toyota began a school in Haruhi, a small town near Nagoya, where about 20 Brazilians are being taught in their native Portuguese to become mechanics. They are beneficiaries of a delicate act of business diplomacy that will help the automaker expand into Brazil.

The year-long course prepares them to return to Brazil and work at one of Toyota’s 125 sales outlets. “I have a chance to do something with my life now,’’ said Antonio Takahanshi, 20, who is studying to become a mechanic. ‘’It is more than the money.’’

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