Japan may let foreign nationals work on farms, provide in-home care in special zones

Kyodo, JIJI

The government said Tuesday it will consider allowing skilled workers from abroad into the agricultural sector in certain special economic zones, while compiling plans to allow certain non-Japanese nursing care workers to provide in-home care services as soon as next year.

The moves target two industries suffering severe labor shortages in the face of Japan’s rapidly graying population.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told a meeting of an advisory council on national strategic special zones that the intake of farm workers is important for the economic revitalization of rural Japan.

“We will speed up the debate (on the issue) with a view to submitting bills in the next Diet session on measures that require legislative amendment,” Abe said, referring to the ordinary session set to convene in January.

The current legal system does not allow non-Japanese to work as farmers.

According to the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, 1.92 million people were working in the agricultural sector nationwide in February, down 8.3 percent from the previous year and about 40 percent of the 1990s level.

As for what kinds of foreign workers will be eligible for the farming industry slots, the panel is aiming to set the bar high, requiring a level of expertise that is backed by a set amount of experience in agriculture.

Such requirements could help ensure equal treatment for both Japanese and foreign workers.

Industry-ready workers from abroad would help Japan as it seeks to expand the amount of highly profitable crops being harvested.

They may also help solve chronic labor shortages and improve productivity in the agriculture sector — a key industry in rural areas.

Meanwhile, plans compiled by a welfare ministry panel Tuesday are aimed to allow foreign nursing care workers cleared for work in Japan through economic partnership agreements to provide in-home care services as soon as the next fiscal year beginning in April.

The workers, who have come to Japan through the EPAs with Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam, and have gained Japanese nursing qualifications by passing the Japanese national exams, are currently allowed to work only in special care homes for the elderly and similar facilities.

The ministry’s new guidelines aimed at expanding the scope of their work to in-home care include training on Japanese culture and the lifestyles of elderly Japanese and the provision of a manual for dealing with medical emergencies.

Amid these developments, the government is expected to retain an existing system introduced in 1993 that allows trainees from developing countries to work in agriculture and other fields in pursuit of skill qualifications.

That system has been criticized as a vehicle for forced labor, with cases having emerged of migrant workers trapped in oppressive employment contracts.

In the new system being considered for special zones, making use of an exemption under the law on immigration control, foreign workers are expected to be provided with wages at least equal to those paid to Japanese doing the same job.

In an economic outlook forecast released Tuesday, the International Monetary Fund urged Japan to take in more migrant workers as part of structural reforms it said are necessary for raising the country’s growth rate.