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Worker shortage hits Japanese construction sites

Publication Date : 10-02-2014


An acute shortage of workers is affecting construction sites in Japan as the number of labourers has fallen while construction orders have been on the rise.

The number of construction workers has fallen to about less than three-quarters of the peak in 1997. Meanwhile, construction orders in terms of workload volumes have been rising because of the economic recovery and preparations for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics.

According to a survey by the Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry, the shortage of workers against the number required at construction sites in 2013 was 1.6 per cent on average. This was the highest since 1993, when comparable data became available.

Especially acute is the shortage of mold makers and scaffolding workers who, according to a construction industry official, “would need at least 10 years to become full-fledged artisans in their trade.” About one-third of all construction companies believe that they cannot secure enough skilled construction workers for the time being.

People in the construction industry say that there are more than a few cases where skilled workers aged 70 or over are still working.

An official of the National Federation of Construction Workers’ Unions said, “The current situation is such that there are construction sites that have inadequate footing, but employers have asked workers to put up with it.”

An official at a home builder voiced concern, saying, “Each time we get orders, we have to try to find carpenters. If subcontractors are affected this way, the schedule to complete houses will be adversely affected.”

The average number of people working in the construction industry in 2012 was 5.03 million, down 26 per cent from 1997, when the number peaked at 6.85 million.

This is because young people in the industry have been on the decline due to the prevailing perception that wages are low despite the hard work.

According to the School Basic Survey of the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry, the number of people who graduated from high schools or universities and took jobs in the construction industry in 2011 was about 32,000. This is less than half the 70,000 who did in 1997.

There has been an increasing number of people who have quit construction jobs because the demand for construction work had dropped due to a protracted economic slump since the bursting of the bubble economy in the early 1990s.

Welfare and social service programmes made available by construction companies are insufficient. For example, nearly 60 per cent of subcontractors have not joined a public-run social insurance programme for workers. This factor has also accelerated the trend of people shunning jobs in the construction industry.

On the other hand, the amount of construction investment hit bottom at about 42 trillion yen in fiscal 2011, but has since trended up.

In addition to demand for reconstruction work in areas devastated by the Great East Japan Earthquake, the construction of condominiums and other facilities has been increasing along with the nation’s economic recovery.

In the near future, work to build athletic facilities for the Tokyo Olympics and improve public transportation facilities will increase. Furthermore, it is necessary to repair aging roads and bridges, that were built during Japan’s high economic growth period.

If construction work increases despite the decreasing number of people who are willing to work in the industry, the situation will deteriorate.

Thus, the land ministry has begun efforts to improve working conditions for skilled construction workers.

One of the measures saw the ministry raise the worker wage rate, which is a standard to calculate the wages of construction workers involved in public works projects, by 7.1 per cent to 16,190 yen per day as a national average starting this month.

In April last year, the amount was raised 15.1 per cent, making it a rare instance that the rate was raised twice in a single fiscal year.

The ministry aims to try to attract skilled workers more easily by, for example, not allowing construction companies that do not join public social insurance schemes to win orders for the central government’s construction projects.

In addition, the ministry is considering such measures as touting the benefits of working in the construction industry to students in high schools and vocational schools and giving them some hands-on experience.

As mid- and long-term measures, further discussions will look at how to better use women at construction sites, an option that has been delayed, and whether to increase the number of foreigners as job trainees who can quickly join the workforce.

However, it takes some time to develop skilled construction workers, making it uncertain whether the measures will resolve the current worker shortage in the industry.


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