Flight of Chinese workers leaves Japanese businesses in the lurch

With many of the tens of thousands of workers who had helped fill Japan’s labor needs having returned to China after the earthquake and tsunami, the country faces another obstacle to recovery.

As the manager of a sleek restaurant in Tokyo’s Ginza shopping district, Yu Yoshida never expected he’d be in the kitchen wearing a white chef’s hat and wrapping little dumplings. But that’s exactly what he was doing this week as customers in this still disaster-shocked city start to drift back, a welcome but also worrisome prospect for the 33-year-old manager.

That’s because 15 of his workers, all Chinese nationals, bolted within a few days of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, leaving Yoshida with a crew of just seven to wait tables, bus dishes and cook. Yoshida said he doubted that the departed employees, all foreign students working part time, would ever return. He knows it won’t be easy finding replacement help, not with Japan’s declining population and many young people unwilling to do such work.

“I’m in trouble,” he said, letting out a short grunt. For now, “we can cope with the existing staff,” he added, “but if [more] customers come back, I’ll be in trouble.”

Many other Japanese businesses face a similar bind. In recent years tens of thousands of Chinese students and so-called trainee workers have been helping fill the labor needs of this country. But after the twin disaster and the damage to a big nuclear power plant in the northeast, many of them returned home. China was the first country to organize mass evacuations, providing transport for at least 3,000 of its citizens from Tokyo and northern Japan last week. Other Chinese simply took off on their own, in some cases paying triple or more the regular airfare to get out in a hurry.

But if their departures left businesses in a lurch, it also exposed a more deep-seated and now urgent problem for Japan: a shrinking domestic workforce that could hamper the nation’s recovery after the destruction left more than 27,000 dead or missing and up to $300 billion in economic damage, according to Japanese officials.

With Japan’s economy in the doldrums for many years and its society aging, the construction industry hasn’t had much work and will now find it tough to get all the technical and manual help it needs, experts agree.

Hidenori Sakanaka, a longtime critic of Japan’s closed immigration policy, views the disaster as an opportunity to fix the nation’s demographics problem. “In order to recover, we have to rely on foreign workers,” said the executive director of the Japan Immigration Policy Institute, a private think tank.

Many Japanese businesses already had come to depend on the controversial foreign trainees program and to a lesser extent exchange students, whose work hours are limited to part time by law. Sakanaka estimates that those two groups combined number about 300,000. Most of them are from mainland China.

There are also hundreds of thousands of Americans and other foreigners, centered in Tokyo, who work in finance, technology and other better-paying industries. Many took off after the disaster as well, but most of them are expected to return.

That’s probably not the case with Chinese students or trainees. Yoshida, the Ginza manager, said most of his Chinese workers told him by phone they were leaving, saying nothing about returning.

At Shahoden, a high-end Chinese restaurant in Tokyo’s Shinjuku area, all six of its Chinese workers returned home. “If they want to go back, they should go back,” said Shahoden’s manager, sounding miffed by the whole thing. “There’s no problem, we can adjust,” he insisted, identifying himself only by his last name, Nakazato.

Such Tokyo restaurants tend to pay their part-time help about 1,000 yen per hour, about $12 at current exchange rates.

Others who work full time in fisheries and factories earn far less and are widely seen as exploited, in part by Chinese intermediaries who connect them with employers.

Hong Mengli, 22, was recruited to work in a Japanese fishery nearly two years ago through a partnership between her local government in southeastern China and the Japanese town of Ishinomaki, which was hard hit by the magnitude 9.0 earthquake and the wall of waves that came down moments later.

She worked six days a week packing seafood on ice; her co-workers included 13 other young Chinese women. It was similar to the work that dominated Hong’s hometown. But at $900 a month, her salary was three times more than what she would have earned in China.

“That was my goal,” Hong said. “To save money and send it back home.”

Hong’s first impression of Ishinomaki after her arrival was how clean it was compared with China. “There’s no trash on the floor,” she said. “Everything is so organized.”

When the earthquake hit March 11, Hong and her co-workers were not especially alarmed. But Ishinomaki lay next to the ocean. Everyone who lived there was trained to head for the elementary school on higher ground. Hong grabbed her bicycle and rode as fast she could. It was only after she arrived that she realized the enormity of the disaster.

“A huge wave came ashore and just swept all the houses and cars away,” Hong said. “The water took away the walls on the first floor of our dormitory.”

For the next five days, Hong slept on the floor of the school with dozens of evacuees. Because the city was a prime destination for Chinese labor, about two-thirds of the facility was filled with fellow expatriates. The local volunteers handed out rice balls and made what they called a Chinese soup with tofu, vegetables and egg to comfort the foreign workers.

Officials from the Chinese embassy then arrived and bused the group about 200 miles away to the western city of Niigata. There, about 90 Chinese workers stayed in a sports auditorium waiting for a chartered flight to Shanghai paid for by their government.

In China, Hong’s family waited for her at a bus stop on the side of the highway outside Wenzhou. About a dozen other families were there too, ready to greet the evacuees.

“Everyone was crying,” Hong said.

Though a year and two months were left on her contract, she said, the manager voided all the agreements with the Chinese workers because rebuilding the business wasn’t certain.

At the time of the disaster, Hong was resolved never to return to Japan. But now that she’s back in China, she feels lost and overwhelmed over having to find work.

“In Japan, I had a stable job,” she said.