At an office in Tokyo, a group of asylum seekers clutching resumes listened to three Japanese companies describe their openings — rare opportunities in the country’s often impenetrable job market.
Japan accepts only a handful of refugees each year and they face hurdles to employment that can seem almost insurmountable, including language requirements, cultural barriers and discrimination.
However, a handful of companies, driven partly by labor shortages, are now hiring refugees.
Among them is Dairyu, a Styrofoam manufacturer. The company’s chief executive officer, Kenichi Osaka, was hoping to find two new employees at a job fair held on Monday by the Japan Association for Refugees (JAR), a non-governmental organization.
“We need your work, and your novel ideas that Japanese people don’t come up with,” he told the asylum seekers in English.
With its rapidly aging society, Japan has an unemployment rate of 2.4 percent, the lowest in 25 years.
“We want to hire refugees because there are not enough workers in Japan and Japanese are so strict with rules... We are looking for ideas that are unexpected and not predictable,” said Osaka, whose 200 employees include about 20 foreigners.
Dairyu was offering a starting salary of ￥813 (US$7.75) an hour, about the recommended minimum wage, along with accommodation and three weeks of holiday.
As prospective employees lined up, Osaka admitted to some apprehension about how his staff would react to working with asylum seekers from African nations.
“I don’t mind, but my employees have never seen a black person,” he said.
He said his foreign and Japanese workers would be paid the same wage, but activists have said asylum seekers regularly face wage discrimination in Japan.
The country is notoriously strict on asylum, granting refugee status to just 20 people out of nearly 20,000 applicants last year.
The government has said most applicants are economic migrants, but activists and the UN have said Japan imposes onerous evidence requirements that can be impossible to meet, even for those in danger.
The process is also tortuously slow, with applicants waiting an average of three years for a decision.
“They are not allowed to work, nor access social security, so how can they survive?” said Eri Ishikawa, chair of JAR’s board. “They are really more vulnerable to be exploited as well.”
For those granted asylum, or temporary work permits, job opportunities are often a far cry from the work they did at home.
An asylum seeker at JAR’s job fair, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said he had nine years of experience in customer service in the aviation and tourism industries. Now, he was hoping to land a job cleaning at a Tokyo hotel.
“Here you are forced to take any option to survive,” he said, his eyes welling up as he described waiting to hear whether his asylum claim would be accepted.
“I can’t see my wife and my kid,” he said, adding that he wishes the authorities would speed up his application.
JAR organizes job fairs every few months and is seeing increasing interest from companies.
“Many companies approach us because of the labor shortage, but to hire refugees just to meet the labor shortage does not work well,” Ishikawa said.
JAR wants companies to train refugees and see them as assets who can help them expand their customer base.
“Quite a few companies that have hired refugees find real value in it, some companies see them as global marketers who can sell their goods abroad, especially wherever they are coming from,” she said.
Among them is Japanese fashion firm Uniqlo, part of the Fast Retailing group. The group’s chief executive officer, Tadashi Yanai, has committed to hiring refugees worldwide.
Uniqlo employs 46 refugees at its stores in Japan and organizes seminars “to increase the interest of other companies in hiring refugees,” said Kurumi Shindo of Uniqlo’s sustainability department.
The company offers refugee hires extensive training, including language and cultural support, but said the investment is well worth it.
“They have this enthusiasm to work... They encourage the other employees to work with a more positive attitude,” Shindo said.
Among Uniqlo’s refugee hires is Cing, who obtained asylum in Japan after fleeing Myanmar in 2008.
She began working at Uniqlo in 2013, after years working two jobs at restaurants to make ends meet, and acknowledges struggling to adapt at first.
“In Japanese, there are many ways to show respect to the customers, it is different talking to customers or to friends. I have experienced very difficult moments,” she said.
Yet, five years on, she is a confident presence and now advises Uniqlo’s newer refugee recruits.
“My friends say it is incredible I have this position,” she said. “It does not seem that Uniqlo has a plan to open an outlet in Myanmar yet, but if that happens, I would very much like to go back and work there.”
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