As the world at large grows more intolerant of immigrants, Japan has bucked the trend and approved a new law allowing more than 345,000 foreigners into the country to ease labour shortage.
From April 2019 onwards, foreigners will be allowed to take up jobs in sectors such as construction, farming, and nursing.
Japan has traditionally been wary of immigration, but the government says more foreign workers are needed as Japan’s population is ageing. Opposition parties however have said that the law could pose risks and expose newcomers to exploitation.
Several businesses in Japan have been in favour of changes to immigration rules to recruit workers from other countries. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has stressed the proposed law is not an overhaul of immigration policy and that Japan will only accept foreigners “who have specific skills and can work immediately to address serious labour shortages, only in sectors that genuinely need them,” as per a report in the BBC.
Why was it introduced?
The two main factors behind the change are presumably age. and Japan’s shrinking labour market.
The Independent reported that “Japan is already the oldest society on Earth, the oldest that has ever existed.” More than one-third of Japan’s population is above 60 years of age, with a median age of 46. The bill could be an indicator that Japan is finally admitting that it does need more immigrants to cope with its ageing population.
Furthermore, Japan is already a “super-aged” nation, which means that more than 20% of its population is over 65 years old. The birth of 946,060 babies in 2017, coupled with an increase in deaths accelerated the population decline. This means that a shrinking group of workers is left to support an increasingly elderly population.
According to the Wall Street Journal, Japan’s population “shrinks by more than 300,000 a year due to a low fertility rate”, and a “tightening labo[u]r market has reduced unemployment to 2.4%”.
Additionally, across Japan, hotels, farms, and construction sites are experiencing a labour crunch as the worker pool is shrinking and demand has been increasing due to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
What has been changed?
The legislation, which was approved by parliament’s upper house early on Saturday after delaying tactics by opposition parties, will take effect from April 2019.
The new legislation creates two new categories of visas for blue-collar workers in sectors that are facing a labour crunch. One category is for workers who can stay for up to five years in Japan, but cannot bring family members.
The other is for more skilled foreigners who can bring relatives and might eventually be allowed to apply for residency.
The government has said that up to 345,150 blue-collar workers will be allowed in over five years.
How have people reacted?
Experts have warned that the new visa system could end in failure unless authorities take steps to address the concerns voiced by foreign workers. Foreign employees working labour jobs in Japan have reportedly faced abused by employers and isolation within communities.
The Japanese government has faced criticism over the treatment of foreign workers who come from developing countries to serve as technical interns, and human rights violations have been highlighted in recent years.
“I fear that the new system may end up as a rerun of the technical intern program,” said Shoichi Ibusuki, a lawyer who has been helping foreign nationals who face harsh working conditions, Japan Times reported.
What is the technical intern training programme?
Japan introduced the technical intern programme in 1993 with an aim of transferring skills to developing countries. However, the programme has faced criticism for being used as a cover for importing cheap labour. This is because the programme does not allow workers to bring family members to Japan, and bars them from switching workplaces.
In 2017 alone, more than 7,000 interns fled from workplaces, according to the Justice Ministry, likely because of low wages and long working hours.
The government has promised that under the new visa system, foreign labourers, many of whom are expected to be blue-collar workers, will be guaranteed the same level of pay as Japanese employees engaging in the same work.
However, Ibusuki, a lawyer helping foreign workers, said the new system “does not include much detail on reining in brokers”. It is believed that brokers could also end up exploiting foreign workers by collecting various fees from them.
“That’s where the biggest problem lies,” he added, noting that 98 per cent of labour law violations go unreported since interns are hesitant to be vocal about unjust conditions due to fear that they may lose their jobs, Japan Times reported.
People gain entry to the intern programme though a system of government and private sector middlemen. Most trainees have to pay thousands of dollars to their brokers, and a significant number of them end up in debt that they take on to pay broker fees.
Nan, a 28-year-old woman from a village in Myanmar, came to Japan in November 2016 under the government-backed Technical Intern Trainee Programme to work at an Aichi Prefecture sewing factory.
She worked for at least eight hours a day, six days a week, for five months. But she received only 339,000 yen (~$3,000) in total — or about 67,800 yen (~$600) per month — which was far lower than the legally set minimum wage level, an apparent violation of the Labour Standards Law. She said that she was not given a copy of her work contract, which made it difficult to claim her labour rights.
Nobuya Takai, a lawyer who has foreign trainees from Vietnam, Myanmar, and China among his clients, said many clothing firms in Gifu and Aichi prefectures are struggling under a severe labour shortage.
“Japanese workers won’t come because the wages are too low” in apparel factories there, Takai said, as per the Japan Times. He added that a number of trainees in these sectors have said that they have not been paid their due wages.
White-collar workers in Japan
White-collar workers are known to spend long work hours at their workplaces. ”Overtime exceeding 100 hours a month is common in white-collar workplaces,” said a labour ministry official, as per a report in the Nikki Asian Review.
Moreover, white-collar workers face a growing risk of being replaced by robots. Fukoku Mutual Life Insurance, a Japanese insurance company, reportedly replaced 34 human insurance claim employees with the “IBM Watson Explorer” in January 2017.
Immigrants in Japan
Japan has about 1.28 million foreign workers – this is more than double the figure a decade ago and about 2 per cent of the workforce. Of this workforce, roughly 260,000 are trainees from countries such as Vietnam and China, who are allowed to stay for three to five years.
By nationality, the Vietnamese constitute the largest portion of technical interns with 106,000 such workers in Japan, followed by Chinese and Filipinos.
If Japan continues to fail to improve the treatment of foreign workers, many of them are bound to turn away and head to countries such as South Korea, where procedures are much simpler and are strictly controlled by the government, said Shigeru Yamashita, managing director of the Tokyo-based Vietnam Mutual Aid Association in Japan.
The Japanese government, which has long remained cautious about accepting foreign workers, was swayed by the country’s business sector, which is heavily in favour of inviting foreign workers. However, as pointed by opposition parties, certain challenges remain. Japan will have to ensure decent working conditions and provide language training to foreign workers.
Keeping in mind that administrative procedures will have to be multilingual, regional governments will have to bear the burden of overseeing Japanese-language education and offering administrative services.
Elton Gomes is a staff writer at Qrius
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