Japanese firms, workers forced to adapt to survive

The coronavirus pandemic has inflicted devastating job losses worldwide, upending whole industries and tearing through communities.

The International Labor Organization estimates that between April and June alone, companies shed almost half a billion jobs in a wipeout that has no comparison going back several decades.

In Japan, a central bank economic survey released on Thursday shows that jobs remain scarce. The situation is forcing employers and governments to adapt.

Workplace laws that impose tight regulations on layoffs mean that even as the pandemic puts enormous strain on company finances, the goal remains to find any means possible to keep people in jobs. To this end, the government is covering 60 percent of the salaries of employees who are forced to take paid leave.

Much of the responsibility for safeguarding the workforce, however, lies with employers. Increasingly, they're moving their staff to different positions within their firms, or farming them out temporarily to other companies.

In August, Japanese airline JAL announced a partial reassignment of flight attendants to the company's regional offices, where they're helping to develop new tourism campaigns.

Restaurant and food businesses have suffered more than most during the pandemic. Some have been able to place their staff with other companies on short-term assignments.

AP Holdings shut nearly all of its 180 restaurants in April and May. During that period, management arranged for any staff who wanted to work as short-term hires to take positions with supermarkets or pizza delivery businesses. The company has since reopened most of its stores, but it says business remains some way below pre-pandemic levels, so for the time being it will continue to place its staff with other firms.

Another big name in the restaurant business, Watami, has 400 outlets in Japan. In May, the company set up a job placement agency to assign its part-time employees to new positions elsewhere. It says many have ended up working in retail and nursing care.

AP Holdings restaurant
AP Holdings shut nearly all of its 180 restaurants in April and May, when a state of emergency was in effect.

Efforts like these are not limited to the private sector.

The Industrial Employment Stabilization Center of Japan, a collaboration between the government and industry, launched a program in June that links workers temporarily with other short-handed companies. A hotel concierge might go to work taking temperatures at a hospital, for example, or a tour bus driver might turn to truck driving. So far, the center has arranged more than 200 such placements.

One of the biggest hurdles to the initiative is the imbalance in job opportunities between industries. The tourism and food industries are suffering from a particular dearth of opportunities. People in these sectors usually need to look further afield to unrelated occupations, which puts them at a disadvantage when competing against people with experience.

Even so, some workers are using the pandemic as an opportunity to start their careers afresh in different industries.

The job placement and recruiting agency Pasona is increasingly focusing its efforts on helping people make the jump to new fields. It says that during the period when department stores and malls were unable to open, new hiring of sales representatives plunged by 70 percent. That prompted its consultants to recommend that people transition to jobs in business sales in the corporate sector instead.

The advice has proved sound. Workers with experience in customer service tend to perform well in business sales, and the companies that take them are usually satisfied.

Changes such as these demonstrate the extent of the disruption the pandemic has caused throughout the workforce, and underscore the urgency of the situation confronting employers as they fight to stay in business.

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