- Title: JAPAN-SUBARU Japan's foreigners are left behind in Subaru's boom
- Date: 28th July 2015
- Summary: PHOTO OF RIJAL WITH HIS WIFE IN NEPAL
- Embargoed: 12th August 2015 13:00
- Topics: General
- Reuters ID: LVADQ1V7Q40QH7ECP8ICIM2GGA8Q
- Aspect Ratio: 16:9
- Story Text: Earlier this year in January, Lakhan Rijal, a 33-year-old Nepali, woke up with severe pain in his lower back and numbness in his right leg.
Rijal is one of the asylum seekers and other foreigners who worked at a Subaru supplier called Nippatsu who worked leather onto hundreds of headrests every day by hand.
He said the labour broker who placed him with Nippatsu gave him an ultimatum -- work, or don't come back. Unable to move, he said he lost his job at the Subaru supplier.
He had previously injured his back before coming to Japan and medical records show Rijal underwent spinal surgery for a herniated disc on March 12.
Asked about Rijal's case, Subaru noted that he had a chronic back condition from before he worked at Nippatsu.
Rijal is now unemployed and owes a total of $9,000 to a local hospital and to the Nepali agent who arranged his move to Japan.
"I am feeling too sad. Why they are doing with me like this. Of course, because I work hard. When they need me and they use me," Rijal told Reuters in an interview at his home in Ota.
"When I have problem, with my leg and back. When I have to go hospital, that time. They are not caring so that is the big problem," he added.
Rijal said he doesn't talk for long with his wife in Nepal because he can't stand her crying.
"When she talks she (is) crying. Because I have a problem, I have a pain. She knows everything," said Rijal, who has a nine-year-old daughter.
Rijal and fellow workers say many of those on the same production line lost fingernails, and others were unable to close their fists after a shift because of the strain of the repeated effort.
Nippatsu said any questions about its workers should be directed to the labour brokers who recruit them for the company and sign them on contracts. Osvaldo Nakamatsu, who runs the company that recruited Rijal, said Rijal was not threatened with dismissal, and that he fired him to help him get severance pay from the government. Rijal said he didn't seek any payout.
Mohammed Shafeer Kallai, a 28-year old Indian asylum seeker, had the tip of his finger mangled in a conveyor belt chain last August at Ikeda Manufacturing Co, a supplier to Subaru and Honda that specializes in brake parts and shock absorbers. Standing behind the Ikeda plant in April, he brought up pictures of his damaged finger on his mobile phone.
"My finger got stuck in the chains of the conveyor belt. I was in extreme pain. It was very sudden and I looked down and part of my finger was missing," he told Reuters in Japanese.
Kallai, who is still working for Ikeda, said the managers did not call an ambulance after the accident. Instead, he said, they called his broker who kept him waiting for 30 minutes before taking him to the hospital.
A manager at Ikeda said they did not call an ambulance because the case wasn't considered to be a medical emergency.
Another worker at a Subaru supplier is an asylum seeker on "provisional release" from immigration detention, a violation of the law. Migrants on provisional release can stay in Japan while their refugee applications are being vetted, but they are not allowed to work.
The worker, Abu Said Shekh, paints dashboard components and other interior parts for up to 12 hours a day, six days a week. Pictures taken with his mobile phone show him wearing a mask to protect against paint fumes. He asked that his place of employment not be identified.
A copy of Dhaka court documents translated into English show that Shekh was indicted back home in Bangladesh under the country's explosive materials laws. In his asylum application, the 46-year-old Shekh said he was the victim of trumped-up charges and had been targeted for being a member of an opposition party.
Reuters could not independently verify his assertion.
His second asylum request was rejected in 2012, according to a letter from the Justice Ministry. He has appealed and is awaiting a final decision.
Shekh lives in the shadows, constantly on the watch for immigration officers. "If I didn't have any problems back home I would not be living in Japan," he said.
These three men are just a few of the dozens of 100 workers interviewed by Reuters in an investigation of work conditions at the factories of Subaru and its suppliers in the industrial town of Ota. A review of payslips and asylum applications, and interviews with labourers from 22 countries, reveals that foreign workers, enmeshed in Japan's closed immigration system, endure abuses at the hands of labour brokers and companies in the Subaru supply chain.
The investigation also found workers at Subaru's suppliers who said they had no insurance, were fired after being injured on the job, were dismissed without notice, and were pressured to work double shifts.
Subaru's parent company, Fuji Heavy Industries Ltd, said its suppliers are responsible for their own labour practices and it was not directly involved in supervising working conditions. Obeying the law and company guidelines are a prerequisite to doing business with Subaru, the company said in a written response to questions from Reuters. The company also said it had no power to monitor the behaviour of labour brokers.
This is all happening as Subaru is enjoying success - especially in the U.S., where sales have almost doubled in the past four years and the company's Forester all-wheel-drive SUV has carved out a following with American drivers for its performance, price and aura of social responsibility.
That's been a key selling point for Subaru, which has marketed itself in the U.S. as the automaker with a conscience.
What Subaru does not tout is that its boom is made possible in part by asylum seekers and other cheap foreign labourers from Asia and Africa.
They work at the automaker and its suppliers at Subaru's main production hub, here in the Japanese town of Ota, two hours north of Tokyo. Many are on short-term contracts and earn about half the wage of their Japanese equivalents on the line at Subaru.
At the automaker's suppliers, workers are often employed through brokers who charge up to a third of the workers' wages. From countries including Bangladesh, Nepal, Mali and China, these foreign labourers are building many of the parts for the Forester, including its leather seats, often in gruelling conditions.
Unlike its larger competitors, Subaru makes almost all of the cars it sells overseas in Japan. That mostly made-in-Japan approach has left the automaker and many of its 260 suppliers struggling to keep up with demand for parts at a cluster of factories in Ota.
"If they (foreigners) were not around we would not be able to build cars at all," said Masayoshi Shimizu, mayor of Ota, a 20-year incumbent who lobbied without success to make his town a specially regulated zone for immigration.
The shortage of workers in the Subaru-driven economy of Ota reflects Japan's declining population and the tightest national labour market since the early 1990s. It's also the result of Japan's closed immigration policy.
Even as demand for workers in manufacturing has doubled over the last three years, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's government has stuck with an approach that bars foreign workers from getting visas for factory jobs.
That's largely because of the political sensitivity of the issue in a nation that has long celebrated its homogeneity.
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