Holiday labour shortage hits businesses in Japan, some have to shut during festive season

A part-time worker carries an order at a steak restaurant in Kawasaki, Japan.
A part-time worker carries an order at a steak restaurant in Kawasaki, Japan. PHOTO: THE YOMIURI SHIMBUN/ASIA NEWS NETWORK

TOKYO (THE YOMIURI SHIMBUN/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Restaurants and the distribution industry are scrambling to find enough part-time workers to meet rising demand during the festive season, resulting in offers of higher wages and other perks to attract more employees.

These businesses are especially busy during December as the year-end and New Year party season overlaps with the sending of year-end gifts as well as additional demand from Christmas events.

Some business operators unable to find enough workers are concerned that they might not be able to stay open during this lucrative season. Rising personnel costs are being passed on and beginning to hit consumers in the pocket through higher prices for dining out and services.

"This is our busiest time of the year, but we don't have enough part-time workers," said Shigeru Saito, managing director at Tsubohachi, which operates a major chain of izakaya restaurants.

In October and November, Tsubohachi recruited part-time workers for the year-end period, when many parties are held.

Although the company offered hourly wages 50 yen (S$0.60) higher than it paid last year, it remains mired in a labour shortage. The company plans to get through the busy stretch by taking steps such as having part-timers flexibly work at several restaurants.

However, some restaurants will be closed this Christmas Eve.

According to a Tokyo-based personnel placement company, the current average hourly wage for part-time truck drivers and workers at restaurants and supermarkets is about 1,100 yen (S$13) to 1,200 yen, higher than the average wage of 1,097 yen across all industries in Tokyo.

Yamato Transport even offered the exceptional hourly wage of 2,000 yen for part-time drivers working night shifts in some areas.

Ten Allied, which operates the Tengu Sakaba izakaya restaurant chain, will top up the 1,100 yen hourly wage it pays by 200 yen to 300 yen for workers on the roster from Jan 1 to 3.

"Even if we boost wages, it's becoming increasingly difficult for us, and the industry as a whole, to hire enough Japanese students to work here," a Ten Allied representative said.

Consequently, the company will fill this shortage by proactively hiring students from Vietnam as well as other people.

Operators of the Ikinari Steak chain of steak restaurants are also offering higher wages in a bid to secure enough workers.

WORKERS' MARKET

The jobs-to-applicants ratio rose to 1.55 in October, the highest level in 43 years, according to the Health, Labour and Welfare Ministry. This remains a "seller's market" for part-time workers as well as new university graduates and employees switching jobs midway through their career.

A survey conducted by Recruit Jobs found that the average wage for part-time workers at the time of recruitment in three major metropolitan areas in November hit a record high of 1,024 yen. The intensifying battle to attract workers has apparently forced employers to bump up hourly wages.

However, some analysts say increasing wages alone will not be enough to secure more workers.

"Companies also need to welcome new workers as colleagues they want to work with and create an environment that's comfortable to work in," said Seiji Takasaki, president of Precious Partners, a Tokyo-based company involved in employment consulting and job vacancy media operations.

A growing number of companies reportedly are seeking to spur a desire to work by giving awards to part-time employees who perform well and establishing a system through which they can acquire paid leave.

MORE BADLY HIT

Due to a labour shortage, a growing number of family restaurants, izakaya restaurants, convenience stores and other businesses are planning to close on some days during the year-end and early in 2018.

About 120 restaurants under the Ten Allied umbrella will keep their doors closed on Dec 31.

"While there is indeed a labour shortage, the degree varies between industries," said Masayuki Kubota, chief strategist at Rakuten Securities.

The retail and service industries previously offered lower wages, but their rising personnel costs can easily put a squeeze on such operators.

"Some businesses are reaching the limit of their ability to stay open every day of the year," Kubota said.

The Bank of Japan's Tankan quarterly survey for December, which was released this month, also clearly showed that some industries faced a more severe labour shortage than others.

The diffusion index calculated by subtracting the percentage of companies with an "insufficient" number of workers from companies with an "excessive" number produced a figure of minus 62 - the lowest level ever recorded - in the accommodation and food and beverage industries, followed by minus 47 in the transport and delivery industry.

In contrast, the figure was just minus 14 for companies in finance-related industries.