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Japan's new foreign worker policy faces challenges

Japan last year recorded its biggest population decline, as its birthrate shrank for the 37th consecutive year. The implications are dire for the workforce, and so the country is gearing up to accept more foreign workers in hopes of rejuvenating its economy. Nevertheless, hurdles remain.

In an attempt to alleviate the growing labour shortage, Japan's parliament late last year has approved a new law that aims to attract 345,000 foreign workers over the next five years. Despite protests from opposition parties, the new bill was pushed through and will take effect in April.

Under the legislation, migrant workers will be permitted to take jobs in 14 sectors deemed to be facing severe shortages. They include restaurants, hotels, manufacturing, fishing and nursing care. Meanwhile, the new visa category allows foreign workers who are 18 years or older to apply for two new types of residency status.

The first type is a five-year residency for people who will engage in work that requires a certain level of knowledge, experience and Japanese language ability. However, they will not be able to bring their families with them.

The second type of residency visa is for one to three years for workers with higher skill levels, and is renewable indefinitely for long-term employment. Foreign workers in this category may bring their families.

Controversy surrounds the policy, as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has frequently denied that Japan is opening its doors to immigration.

"We are not considering adopting a so-called immigration policy," Mr Abe told parliament in October 2018. "To cope with the labour shortage, we will expand the current system to accept foreign workers in special fields. We will accept foreign human resources that are skilled and work-ready, but only for a limited time."

Nevertheless, critics claim the changes could lead to problems they associate with immigration, such as lack of integration, discrimination and an increased social welfare burden.

It is the first time in history that Japan is offering work visas for blue-collar foreign workers. Eight Asian countries have been targeted: Nepal, China, Indonesia, Mongolia, Myanmar, Thailand, the Philippines and Vietnam.

The opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP) has attacked the policy as it does not specify the number of workers each industry will accept. Moreover, it is worried about human rights protection issues among foreign workers as the country currently has made insufficient preparations.

"The government's explanation does not show the big picture. The policy will cause serious problems in the future," said Democratic Party for the People head Yuichiro Tamaki.

The opposition also raises the spectre of declining wages for Japanese workers, as experienced by the United States and Britain when they opened their doors to more foreign labour.

Even some key members of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party have advised Mr Abe to learn from the failure of Germany's migration policy.

At the same time, public attitudes are slowly shifting. According to a Kyodo News poll conducted late last year, 51.3% of Japanese support a bill to accept more foreign workers. The result is seen as encouraging in a country with the lowest percentage of immigrants among developed countries, where social harmony and order are prized above all else.

Meanwhile, about 36% of those who opposed the bill said they were afraid of potential problems that could arise from different cultural backgrounds of immigrants. Many low-skilled foreign workers currently in the country on "technical training" programmes have repeatedly faced allegations of abuse over the past years.

Nevertheless, it is still too early to judge if Japan is moving in the right direction in terms of its immigrant policy shift. But clearly the government is being forced to confront chronic labour shortages as the problem is only worsening.

Businesses have long lobbied the government to loosen up immigration rules as they were struggling to find workers. The world's third largest economy will need to adjust and adapt into an ever-changing society that will never be the same.

TOKYO: The Japanese government intends to strengthen regulations on brokers who collect large sums from foreigners seeking to work in the country, as it prepares to open up to foreign blue-collar workers from April.

According to a draft plan compiled by the labour ministry, the government aims to enhance protection of foreign workers from April by introducing tougher standards for Japanese placement agencies working with brokers overseas.

The move reflects problems faced by foreign workers who arrive in Japan as trainees under a government-sponsored technical internship programme. They often bear heavy debts as brokers collect a large amount of money from the workers or their families under the pretext of guarantee deposits or other fees.

Under the tighter regulations, placement agencies in Japan may have their permits revoked or not be granted permits at all if associated brokers overseas collect deposits from workers, make them sign contracts that require them to pay penalties if they quit in the middle of an assignment, or lend them travel expenses and other fees.

Japan currently checks whether brokers are given permission for their work in each country but does not check on whether they collect deposits.

The number of foreign workers in Japan has tripled over the past decade to a record-high 1.46 million as of October, according to the ministry.

Kyodo News

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