April 9, 2009 at 1:00 am

Layoffs hit temporary workers hard in Japan

Thousands lose jobs, including many foreigners not eligible for assistance

Toshio Ohta, left, and his former co-worker Ikkei Ikeda look out at the Hino Motors Ltd. truck factory where they used to work in Hino City, Japan. (Bryce G. Hoffman / The Detroit News)

Hino City, Japan

Toshio Ohta lost his job at the local truck plant here two months ago. Now the former Hino Motors Ltd. worker is trying to keep Toyota Motor Corp.'s truck unit from throwing him out on the street.

The 39-year-old Ohta, along with about 25 other laid-off temporary workers, have refused to surrender their rooms in the company-owned dormitory next to the factory. They are staying put partly to draw attention to the plight of temporary auto workers in Japan, but also because they have nowhere else to go.

As in Detroit, there are two types of autoworkers in Japan today: those who have lost their jobs, and those who are afraid of losing them.

So far, it is only temporary workers like Ohta who have been laid off. But there are thousands like him in this country, where they make up a significant percentage of the work force in auto factories and parts plants.

Unlike American manufacturers, which have until recently been prevented from hiring temporary workers by union contracts, Japanese companies were encouraged to do so by their government as a way of insulating permanent employees from the rise and fall of international auto markets.

At least Ohta is a Japanese citizen and eligible for government aid. In Toyota City, idled temporary workers from Brazil and Peru are being allowed to stay in their flats, but complain that they are having a hard time securing necessities in a country that provides few resources for foreigners.

"They are lacking basic supplies, like baby milk powder," said Makoto Yuasa, an activist who has championed the cause of Japan's growing army of unemployed workers, many of whom have lost their jobs at automobile plants and parts factories because of the decline in exports to the United States. He says companies like Toyota are unwilling to help.

"They don't want to meet with us."

Toyota says most of the workers Yuasa is referring to are employed by outside agencies, few of which are used by Toyota itself. Beyond that, the company would not comment on his allegations.

Toshihiro Iwatake, executive director of the Japan Automobile Manufacturers Association Inc., says his members have done what they can to help thousands of temporary workers let go because of the decline in auto sales globally.

"Our companies are very aware of their social responsibilities," Iwatake said. "We continue to provide them with housing and try to find other work for them. After exhausting all of that goodwill, we finally have to say, 'I'm sorry.' "

Auto companies are reluctant to evict workers like Ohta because they are concerned about how such moves would be viewed by the Japanese public. Iwatake accuses Yuasa and other activists of manipulating the situation for political reasons and turning idled workers against their former employers.

But Ohta and his former Hino co-workers say they do not need anyone to tell them how badly they were treated.

"Management should have seen this coming," said Makoto Kotani, 48, who lost his job at Hino in December. "They are putting the burden on (us)."

Kotani was born in a rural part of Miyagi Prefecture. His story is typical of Japanese temporary workers.

"The wages are not good in rural areas," Kotani said. So like many men from rural Japan, he came to the city with dreams of a permanent job with a big-name automaker. "All I could get was a temporary position."

He and his former colleagues were shocked to learn that many U.S. autoworkers view them as the enemy.

"We are losing our jobs here, too" said Ikkei Ikeda, 29, who lost his more than a year ago and has been helping organize other laid-off Hino workers.

"But Toyota and Hino are going overseas to open factories in places like the United States."