The Labor Crunch and the Building of the Olympic Stadium: Caught Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Construction of the National Gymnasium_AP

It’s already a year behind schedule.

When the Tokyo Olympic Organizing Committee decided to renege on its agreement to Zaha Hadid to build the National Stadium for the 2020 Olympics, the decision resulted in a second search for an architect, and a plan that had a year lopped off the timeline.

So while many people have faith in the Japanese construction industry to make heroic efforts to get the stadium ready in time for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, it comes with an extra challenge – the fact that unemployment is at its lowest unemployment rate since 1995 – 2.8%. While politicians in America and Europe are looking for easy ways to produce thousands if not millions of new blue-collar jobs, Japan cannot find enough people to keep up.

The aftermath of the 2011 tsunami, aka 3.11, is still impacting Japanese society today, as construction work in the Tohoku region of Japan sucks up a large percentage of the construction worker pool. So construction companies are rushing ahead with the talent they have. In the productivity equation, that should mean longer hours for the workers.

But Japanese corporations have been warned by the government that they cannot work their people to death. Compensation claims for cases of “karoshi” (worked to death) have been steadily increasing over the years as the public realizes there are limits to the loyalty one can show one’s company or one’s leaders.

Recently, Olympic Minister Shunichi Suzuki was at the construction site of the National Stadium and said that while the work is continuing as scheduled thanks to the workflow efficiency, he warned that “working conditions must meet legal standards.”

He cited the case of a 23-year old worker who had been working on the construction site of the National Stadium, and who had committed suicide in July. According to the Mainichi, he was working well over the limit of 80 hours of overtime per month, although the records showed that he was under the limit. According to this article, the worker’s mother said that her son would routinely wake up at 4:30 am and get home at 1 am. The Japan Times stated that the suicide note of the worker stated he was “physically and mentally pushed to the limit.”

The rock of the 2020 deadline. The hard place of the worker shortage. Is there a way out of this squeeze?