Sunday, April 26, 2020

Workers Risking Infection Deserve Payouts Too, Says Japan Minister
Yasutoshi Nishimura says ¥100,000 cash payments go to those ‘working like crazy’ and the furloughed

Workers such as cashiers in supermarkets receive government payments following a rebellion by PM Shinzo Abe’s coalition partners in the Komeito party © AFP via Getty Images

Supermarket cashiers who risk infection by going to work deserve government cash payouts just as much as those at home on furlough, said the minister leading Japan’s fight against the coronavirus in an interview with the Financial Times.

Yasutoshi Nishimura, a trusted lieutenant of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and minister of state for economic and fiscal policy, had originally drawn up a plan to distribute cash payments of ¥300,000 ($2,790), but only to households badly affected by the coronavirus.

Following a rebellion by Mr Abe’s coalition partners in the Komeito party, that was changed in mid-April to payments of ¥100,000 to everybody in Japan, at a cost of an extra ¥8.9tn ($83bn).

The change of plan shows how the widespread impact of the Covid-19 shutdown has put pressure on governments to go beyond strictly economic considerations when designing programmes of public support.

“There are people working in supermarkets. They can’t take a holiday. Their wages may not have dropped but they are working like crazy and at risk of infection,” said Mr Nishimura, in an interview carried out by videoconference. “There are truck drivers supporting distribution. More than anything, there are medical staff working night and day, at risk of infection, and they would have got nothing from the ¥300,000 plan.”

Mr Nishimura, who is in self isolation, said that any cash distribution with conditions attached would mean some people just below the cut-off point completely missing out. Drawing that line, while demanding that the entire country maintain social distancing, proved to be politically impossible.

The minister spoke to the FT as Japan prepares for the start of “Golden Week” holidays, a period that usually produces a surge in domestic travel and consumer spending, but will this year provide a critical test of Japan’s partial lockdown.

Earlier in the month, the operators of Japan’s bullet trains said that bookings for the period were just 10 per cent of their levels during Golden Week last year.

An initial state of emergency expires on May 6, when Golden Week ends, but some experts are already urging an extension because the public response to requests for social distancing has fallen short of their hopes.

“This is the critical moment, where if we can manage to reduce contacts between people by 80 per cent then the number of new infections will fall, and we’ll be able to see a path to the end of this,” said Mr Nishimura.

There has been tension between Mr Nishimura and the national government, who are determined to sustain economic activity, and local politicians whose main focus is controlling the virus. Last week, the government of Tokyo and three surrounding prefectures called on companies to give staff 12 straight days off for Golden Week and to limit food shopping trips to once every three days.

Unlike some countries, Japan has not introduced a job retention scheme where the government pays wages for furloughed workers, but Mr Nishimura pointed to existing employment adjustment subsidies.

Under that system, if companies furlough workers at 60 per cent of their normal pay, the government will cover 90 per cent of the cost for a limited period. The government is considering increasing its support to 100 per cent for smaller companies.

Mr Nishimura said that cash distributions to small companies, due to start in May, would also help to protect employment. “For companies where sales have dropped heavily, by more than 50 per cent, we will be providing ¥2m ($18,610) and that can also be regarded as a measure to cover furloughs,” he said.

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