15 November, 2005

The Golden Cage of Japan

The recent crackdown on illegal workers has forced undocumented workers to dress conservatively in expensive suits. Many of them have moved further into the suburbs, where work is easier to find and documents not required.
BY SUSHMA JOSHI
This News was Posted on kantipuronline.com: 2005-11-15 22:40:14

“I haven’t seen my wife for ten years,” says R. P. Ghale (a pseudonym). “She used to be so vibrant and beautiful.” The 53-year-old migrant worker is currently living in Toyota city. Having traveled extensively in Asia and Europe earlier, he entered Japan in the pretext of putting in a tender for a cell-phone company. It has been the “longest meeting” he’s ever attended; he simply stayed on as an undocumented worker, working in Japan’s technological companies.
His first job at the Sanyo Company fetched him 25,000 rupees. “I would have gone back to Nepal, but I would have to lie seven times for the same amount,” he says. “Over here, you get up in the morning, go to work and get paid.” The Japanese government does not grant work visas to Nepalis; therefore, many decide to stay in Japan as undocumented workers, in spite of long, painful separation from their families. No wonder, some of the Nepali workers have married Japanese folks and settled permanently in Japan.
Nepali migrant workers in Japan contribute significantly to Nepal’s national economy. Remittances are the biggest source of foreign exchange in Nepal right now, and Japan-based Nepali workers send home more money than those based in Malaysia, South Korea or the Gulf countries.
New Nepali workers often get paid at the lower end of the Japanese salary scale. “I was getting paid 10,000 yen (Rs. 7000) by the Kantipur Company in Shibuya,” says one worker. “They paid my rent and expenses for food and healthcare, but it was still low pay. So, I left.” He then moved to another restaurant that paid him a monthly salary of 25,000 yen (Rs.17,500). Interestingly, the Kantipur Company is owned and operated by Japanese natives – an indication that the use of migrant workers is not restricted to immigrants-owned businesses.
While many Nepalis in Japan work for Japanese and Indian bosses, some own and operate their own businesses. “In 1989, there were 8 Nepali restaurants, stores and curio shops in Tokyo,” says a Nepali in his fifties. “Now there are almost 200 in Tokyo alone, and about a hundred more in other parts of Japan.” Some high-profile Nepali restaurant-owners have been known to hide migrant workers’ passports and pay them meager wages.
Blue-collar work (e.g., cutting wood, cleaning fish, butchering and recycling plastics) can be quite lucrative in Japan. “A highly qualified butcher can make up to three or four lakhs a month,” says a Nepali worker. Nepalis dressed up in suits and ties like Japan’s white-collar “salarymen” take the Tokyo subway back to their rented apartments every evening. However, their briefcases might well contain freshly butchered meat instead of papers. At the end of a hard day’s work at the butcher’s shop, left-over meat is a perk too tempting – and in Tokyo, too expensive – to leave behind. The recent crackdown on illegal workers has forced undocumented workers to dress conservatively in expensive suits. Many of them have moved further into the suburbs, where work is easier to find and documents not required. After all, being caught without valid documents in one of the random police checks on Tokyo’s streets would lead to detention and subsequent deportation. Recently, a Nepali who headed to Japan after working in Brunei suddenly found himself alone when the Japanese police nabbed his wife and son in a random ID check on the street. “Nepalis who return in this way become criminals in their own country,” reflects a Japanese man sympathetic to the cause of migrant workers. “They are criminals here, and criminals when they return with a loan they cannot repay.”
Although the Japanese economy experienced a remarkable boom in the post-World War II era, it has stagnated during the last decade. Japan’s hardliners on immigration policy contend that migrants from less developed Asian countries, including the Philippines and Nepal, contribute to Japanese workers’ unemployment, as the migrant workers are willing to work for low pay. While poor migrants eager for work make easy scapegoats, Japanese youngsters may also be responsible for their unemployed status. They seem to be victims of a cultural malaise; going to school, or work, is quite unpopular among them. A young Japanese man may take a job for three months and then leave. “Dropping out” is so prevalent among the Japanese youth that the Japanese have a special word for the phenomenon – Neet.
Many Nepalis who headed to Japan had thought they could provide for their families by doing the 3D (dirty, dangerous and difficult) jobs the Japanese no longer wanted to do. However, unless the Japanese government adopts a lenient policy for migrant workers and keeps its doors open to its less fortunate neighbours, many Japan-based Nepali workers may find themselves turned away empty-handed in the coming years.

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