OSAKA--In Japan's rosier economic times, day laborers were in hot demand for short-term jobs mainly in construction. These days, many are on welfare, being left unemployed and seeking a bed in a free shelter.
This city's Kamagasaki district is known for its large population of day laborers. The mood here is bleak.
"Kamagasaki was last bustling several years ago, when Sharp Corp. built a plant in Sakai, Osaka Prefecture," says a 59-year-old man who has been resident in the neighborhood for more than 30 years. He gives his name only as Miyazaki.
Miyazaki said he slept the previous night at a free shelter for day laborers. He awoke at 3:30 a.m. and headed to the Airin labor welfare center.
"You cannot get a job unless you go there early," he explains.
Dozens of vans are parked outside the center. Brokers are shouting, "Take up a day's work!"
Men examine slips posted on the vehicle windows. One offers 6,800 yen ($73) for demolition work. Another quotes 9,000 yen for regular construction work. There is nothing for Miyazaki.
Many men seem to be in the same boat, and within an hour or so most have left. They will have to find somewhere to spend the day, perhaps on the street, before standing in line again for a place at a free night shelter.
"You cannot withstand the cold in the park without a cup of 100-yen shochu (distilled liquor)," Miyazaki says, his breath reeking of alcohol. "You cannot be stone sober, either."
In Kamagasaki, one in three day laborers is on welfare.
On any one day, only 5,000 to 8,000 jobs are offered in the district. This is, at most, a third of the work available in the late 1980s during Japan's asset-inflated economic boom. Some jobs require workers to stay in camps.
"These days, TV sets and washing machines are assembled in China and South Korea where wages are low," said a 64-year-old man who gave his name as Shibuya. "It is not surprising that there are fewer jobs for day laborers."
He said he receives 120,000 yen a month in welfare benefits.
"EPITOME IN NEAR FUTURE"
Fewer factories are being built, and there has been a decline in the number of public works projects under way. And heavy machinery can perform many of the tasks that aging laborers once did.
Men in Kamagasaki who work for at least 13 days in a month are eligible to benefits from a type of employment insurance for day laborers.
But the shortage of work means many cannot count on meeting the required number of days. Since the 2008 financial crisis, thousands of day laborers have been forced to go on welfare or live on the streets.
The number of people on welfare continues to grow in Japan, setting new records almost every month. As of October, there were more than 1.56 million registered recipients, 43 percent of them households of people aged 60 and above.
Minoru Yamada, director of Kamagasaki Shien Kiko, a nonprofit organization which supports homeless people in Kamagasaki, says the community of day laborers is "the epitome of Japan in the near future."
"We must expand public support for employment and come up with new ways to secure jobs," he said. "That way, we can reduce spending on welfare benefits."
Yamada said some people shut out of the labor market were reclassified as "sick" and admitted into facilities so that they could receive welfare benefits accordingly. But he said such stopgap measures will not work anymore.
Some laborers who do not want to go on welfare have taken cleaning jobs offered by the Osaka prefectural government in a program designed to tackle unemployment.
The program pays 5,700 yen for a day of cleaning streets and parks, although each laborer is allowed to work only five days a month. About 1,500 people are registered for the program.
"I want to continue earning money for as long as my body will still move," said a 67-year-old man who gave his name as Sakamoto.
He said he had first come to Kamagasaki in 1970, when an expo was held in Osaka. "In those days, I was fit and well, and Japan, too, had momentum."
When he is not on a cleaning job, Sakamoto collects empty cans on the street. He earns roughly 1 yen per can.
"UNABLE TO SURVIVE"
Osaka has the largest percentage of welfare recipients of 20 major cities.
A growing number of young temporary workers are on welfare, and the overall percentage of temporary workers in Osaka Prefecture is far higher than the national average.
One 30-year-old temporary worker at the factory of a Panasonic Corp. group company in Osaka Prefecture has received several tens of thousands of yen in welfare benefits since June.
His hourly wage is a little over 1,000 yen, and he is not entitled to bonuses. The father of three said in a good month his take-home pay is more than 200,000 yen, including overtime, but even that fails to cover the family's expenses.
"I am employed by a staffing agency. However, the company I work at is a large one," he said. "I never imagined that I would be unable to survive without welfare."
Last year, Panasonic announced a heavy loss. He was told his factory would close for many days in the summer to cut back production of TV sets and audio products. An enforced holiday brings no reward for dispatch workers paid by the day.
"I thought it would leave me unable to make ends meet," he said.
Ninety percent of the 100 or so workers at the factory are employed by staffing agencies because the company has been squeezing costs wherever possible.
"Our jobs are hard, but we have put up with low wages," the man said.
When business conditions dived further, his contract was terminated after six months.
He is back in work again now, but increasingly fears that his three-month contract may not be renewed at the end of March.
Amid the uncertainty, rumors are rife. One says that one-third of the workers will be let go. Another says the axed workers will be chosen by lottery regardless of their record.
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