Japan’s farm industry suffering severe workforce shortage

TOKYO, July 30 – With Japan’s jobs-to-applicants ratio hitting higher levels than during the bubble economy years, farms are facing a serious labor shortage. The ratio in the agriculture industry has continuously been increasing, marking higher levels than other industrial sectors. While the industry is in need of workers as many younger farmers are expanding their business and more agricultural corporations are being set up, the tight job market spreading throughout industrial sectors is making it difficult for farms to hire workers even for short-term part-time works. The situation is so severe that it could have a grave impact on farmers trying to maintain or expand their businesses.

The active ratio of job offers to job applicants – the number of job openings per person looking for a job – for farm workers involved in cultivation and harvesting of grains, fruits and vegetables rose from 1.08 in fiscal 2012 to 1.63 in fiscal 2016. If the ratio is above 1, it means there are more jobs than job seekers, and higher ratio means the labor shortage is more serious.

The ratio for all industrial sectors was 0.82 in fiscal 2012 and 1.39 in fiscal 2016. The figure for June, released on July 28, was 1.51, hitting its highest level in 43 years and four months backed by the recovering economy and mass retirement of baby boomers.

The ratio for farm workers has continuously been higher than the overall average, reflecting an increase in large-scale farmers who are hiring people because they cannot manage their business only within their families, and an increasing number of agricultural corporations which employ full-time workers.

The number of job openings posted on Agri-Navi. com, a job offer information website for agricultural workers, is currently about 1,000, doubling from the average figure marked last year. Agri Community, the operator of the website based in Tokyo’s Shinjuku Ward, points out that more farms are suffering from workforce shortage because job seekers are turning to other sectors such as manufacturing along with the economic recovery.

While the jobs-to-applicants ratio only reflects full-time jobs, the officials of the Central Union of Agricultural Cooperatives (JA-ZENCHU) said it is becoming more difficult to even secure part-time workers only for the farming season. Farms have been asking relatives and local women to work for them, but many of them are retiring due to their age, and it is hard to find workers to replace them because other industrial sectors are offering more jobs with higher pay, the officials said.

“Many farms say they can’t obtain workers even if they offer jobs,” says a vegetable farmer of Morioka, Iwate Prefecture. “It is difficult to find people who can work only for a limited period of time. People say it would be better to work at convenience stores.” Farm work is apparently losing popularity, as people are shying away from hard physical work, as well as limited-term employment and jobs affected by the weather that do not provide stable income.

Under such circumstances, the government and agricultural cooperatives have taken measures to support farmers. For instance, JA Ochiimabari, an agricultural coop in Ehime Prefecture, has been dispatching its employees to help farmers since 2013, and launched a labor support service in 2015 in coordination with a temporary employment agency. The service is used mainly by citrus fruit growers in the region. The coop is taking such measures, fearing that the workforce shortage could not only prevent farmers from expanding their business but also threaten the future of the region’s agricultural production.

Considering the continuing population decline in the nation, voices are growing for the need to depend on foreign workers to solve the problem of labor shortage.

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