Who could have imagined that Japan, the country that brought robots into every car factory in the world, looks set to stay resolutely old school in agriculture?
This month’s vote by Japan’s parliament to open the door more widely to overseas laborers confirms that despite government support and millions of dollars of investment in high-tech agriculture by companies from Kubota Corp. to Panasonic Corp., robots won’t be replacing farm workers any time soon.
For Chiba prefecture tomato producer Yasuji Kakuzaki it’s a matter of cost: “We don’t have the capacity to make the capital spending to automate production.” He welcomes the law changes and has already taken advantage of an earlier program to allow foreign workers as interns to hire five Vietnamese laborers.
Kakuzaki began with one intern 10 years ago as fieldwork was too tough for him to continue, and as he was unable to find Japanese people who were willing to work for the government-set minimum wage. He’s since more than doubled the size of his farm to about two acres.
One of the interns, Tran Thi My, started in February 2016 and works seven hours a day, six days a week for 895 yen ($8) per hour, the minimum wage in Chiba. Even at that salary, she says she’ll earn enough to buy a house in Vietnam after her three-year contract expires. “If I’d stayed in Vietnam, it would have taken me as long as 15 years to get money for our new house.”
For Kakuzaki, his annual wage bill for five workers is about 10 million yen. He earns about 50 million yen a year from his tomatoes. And while Panasonic is working on a tomato-harvesting robot, it won’t be ready until 2020.
Bloomberg explains that is that kind of economics that makes agriculture the industry forecast to hire the most foreigners under the new rules, accepting as many as 7,300 people in the year starting in April. That’s predicted to expand to 36,500 by the year through March 2024. Other industries expected to employ foreigners include care for the elderly, restaurants and hotels.