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Overhaul Japan’s immigration laws to boost working women

by Kumi Sato

Special To The Japan Times

The two most important policies in Abenomics’ “third arrow” — structural reform — are increasing labor mobility and keeping more women in the labor force so that they can help raise Japan’s GDP. These two issues are linked at the hip, and the economic potential that could be unlocked is vast.

Amazingly the biggest reason is that Japan’s female population still remains largely untapped as a source of economic growth. According to a Goldman Sachs study, if Japan could increase its employment rate to match its male employment rate of 80 percent, its workforce could potentially expand by 8.2 million people, boosting GDP by as much as 14 percent.

Yet without enough feasible options to manage both child care and work responsibilities, many women will continue to opt out of the labor force just when they are hitting stride — a loss Japan cannot afford when its population is shrinking.

To his credit, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe highlighted women as a “central key” to Japan’s productivity when unveiling his growth strategy. Abe called for the creation of more child-care centers, the elimination of waiting lists, and even asked companies to voluntarily extend maternity leave from the current 18 months up to a maximum of three years. There is even discussion about tax deductibility for child care and domestic help costs.

These would all be steps in the right direction. If more Japanese women can get their careers back on track after giving birth, they will not only help slow long-term demographic shrinkage, but they will also boost GDP while increasing future tax revenues and easing Japan’s fiscal dilemma. At the same time, their peers will also gain confidence that they too can have children and return to work, thereby creating a virtuous cycle.

In Japan’s case, the impact of this shift, and of better work-life balance in general, would be massive. Accordingly, no stone should be left unturned in the search for effective measures.

But one doesn’t have to think very far “out of the box” to find policies that can be easily implemented. The use of foreign “domestic helpers” is an obvious case in point.

In Hong Kong and Singapore, it is common for families to hire a foreign domestic helper to look after the children, as well as to assist with housework. This is doubly advantageous in freeing up women to seek employment because they are also able to off-load some of their domestic work

Unfortunately, this practice is almost unheard of in Japan, and in fact is not even legally possible for Japanese citizens or permanent residents. Why? Because Japan’s antiquated immigration regulations only permit foreigners with a certain visa status (such as “diplomat” or “investor/business manager”) to “sponsor” foreign domestic helpers.

By simply relaxing irrational immigration laws like these, the Abe administration could easily give Japanese women an entirely new option for child-care support, instead of having to endlessly wait for day-care positions to open up. Moreover, this is one option that would not cost the Japanese government a single yen in subsidies. Quite the contrary, it would increase tax revenues and GDP, because domestic helpers and working women both pay taxes, and usually consume more than a single housewife.

In many ways helpers are more supportive of a working woman’s needs than child-care centers. For example, the operating hours of many day-care centers are inconvenient for women with full-time jobs, but a helper’s hours can be tailored to the needs of the family.

Aside from child care, foreign domestic workers are necessary to fill the severe shortage of nurses and other elderly caregivers that Japan’s aging society faces. This supply-demand gap is already large today, and inevitably will grow larger as the society ages further and the long-term increase in the number of single-child families takes its toll. (Actually, this particular gap isn’t just about women. Many male single children will also end up having to take care of their aging parents, thus creating even more demand for foreign domestic workers.)

It is high time for Japan to tackle these issues proactively, on both a cultural and national policy level. Keeping women in the labor force is no longer just a “women’s issue,” but rather an issue of the highest national urgency. With luck, the sense of that urgency will not be lost after the Upper House election this July, when Abe plans to turn his attention to constitutional reform.

Kumi Sato is president of Cosmo, Japan’s largest independent public affairs and strategic communications firm.

  • mohindar

    Be careful.

    Hong Kong and South Korea employ foreign workers, but soon they start feeling entitled to equal rights as the locals. This is a slippery slope to multiculturalism, a policy that’s widely failed across the West. Do not compromise ethnic integrity in the name of “compassion”, it only leads to neverending identity politics and victim-mongering.

    • zer0_0zor0

      Why wouldn’t foreigners working in the country have the same rights as the locals (citizens), with the exception of voting, perhaps?

      Multiculturalism is a farce, but that is almost beside the point.

      • http://getironic.blogspot.com/ getironic

        mohindar is confused because what he means by rights are “privileges”.

        It’s just the result of the state having its hands in everything. In his eyes, you grow up somewhere, and you have been paying into its redistributive system since you were young, so when you later collect the benefits such as a public pension, public medical insurance, welfare, etc it’s things you are entitled to. So to him, it’s an injustice for someone who comes from “the outside” to get to tap into these kinds of benefits without before paying the same kind of dues.

        As it stands, it is impossible to resolve this problem without treating people as legal “unequals”, or by allowing immigrants to exploit natives. What he doesn’t recognize is that this is a manufactured problem that in a truly free society could not exist, much in the same way changes in population wouldn’t matter either: The real injustice is that the state has the power to force everyone to pay into these services, instead of leaving people alone to sort their own lives out. In that situation, immigrants and foreign workers are no threat at all, they can only be viewed as beneficial since they would necessarily have to be productive in order to make it in their new home. Similarly, it wouldn’t matter how few babies people have when the government is not in the pension business.

  • zer0_0zor0

    The problem is that small companies don’t want to pay the half-salary that women on maternity leave receive to begin with. How would extending the period which companies that don’t want to pay for one year to three years solve the problem?

    Sorry, but that is a ludicrous suggestion, as is the citing of a Goldman Sachs report on social issues.

    The restoration of some sort of tax deduction associated with raising children would certainly be beneficial.

    There is far too much lip service being made in regard to social problems by bogus politicians seeking to make short term impressions for political gain by making long term promises not even within the scope of their term in office.

  • Non white immigrant

    We have seen how great is multiculturalism is Sweden, we also saw how great
    is multiculturalism in France, in England, Belgium, Germany,
    Netherlands, Austria…

    Biggest European Countries leaders, Merkel, Cameron…have declared that multiculturalism has failed. It just does not work.