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As omicron surges, Japan fears twin threat of worker and parts shortages

  • January 15, 2022
  • , Nikkei Asia , 4:16 a.m.
  • English Press

TOKYO — From auto factories to nursing homes to trains, workplaces in Japan face the risk that the fast-spreading omicron variant will leave them without enough staff to maintain operations.


Some, including Mazda Motor and major air conditioner manufacturer Daikin, have barred lunch or dinner parties. Others, like East Japan Railway, or JR East, are training staff to ensure that they have enough front-line workers.


These steps come as the government moves to shorten the recommended quarantine period from 14 days to 10 for people who have had close contact with COVID-19 cases, part of an effort to maintain essential services. Friday saw daily new cases in Japan top 20,000 for the first time since Sept. 1.


“If there’s a cluster, factories have to stop,” an automaker executive said. “We’ve been cutting production because of the coronavirus since last year, so that would mean even more loss of business opportunities.”


Osaka-based Daikin has been setting limits on employee social gatherings since October. But “the variant has spread so rapidly that we wanted to move faster and have a stricter policy,” senior executive officer Naofumi Takenaka said of omicron.


Part of the problem is the risk of omicron spreading unnoticed. Data from Okinawa Prefecture, which has battled clusters of the variant around U.S. military bases, shows that as of Jan. 4, 92% of cases had mild or no symptoms. One person infected with omicron can have close exposures to four or five people.


This threat is not confined to factories. Chronically understaffed nursing homes face high hurdles in securing personnel when workers have to quarantine for COVID-19.


“We were operating with the bare minimum to begin with because of worker shortages,” a Tokyo nursing home manager said. “There is no way for us to share staff.”


A pilot shortage has led United Airlines and other American carriers to cancel flights. JR East, the operator of Tokyo’s busy Yamanote Line, aims to avert such an outcome by readying standby staff in case train operators cannot work. Licensed workers on office duty are receiving training to be able to fill in on short notice.


In response to the 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic, Japanese authorities urged companies to have business continuity plans in place for when up to 40% of their workers are unable to perform their duties. But many companies appear to be falling short of this expectation during the pandemic.


A Tobu Railway spokesperson said the company “will update our BCP if necessary, based on the situation with omicron infections.”


Only about 40% of businesses with 100 or fewer employees have such plans, half the share among big corporations, according to a study by Mizuho Research & Technologies. Small manufacturers tend to have more factory work that cannot be done from home.


And even companies that have successful plans for coping with worker shortages can still be forced to halt operations by supply chain interruptions.


“The parts shortages owing to the coronavirus haven’t fully subsided,” an executive at an appliance maker said. “If workers are out and factories have to stop, we won’t be able to recover those earnings during the current fiscal year.”

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