More foreigners are working in Japan than ever before, according to the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry. At the end of October 2013, the number of foreign workers in Japan stood at 717,504, up 5.1 percent from the year before. The number was the highest since employers started regularly submitting reports on foreign employees to the ministry in 2007.
Politicians of many different stripes will surely seek to exploit this new data for rhetorical purposes, but the increase results from many complex and interwoven factors.
First, the increase stemmed from a slight improvement in employment, though there was not a great change in all areas and surely not for all workers.
The increase also reveals that Japanese workplaces are internationalizing just as workplaces worldwide are doing. In fact, Japan is far behind most other advanced countries in the percentage of workers who come from other countries.
The foreign percentage of Japan’s labor force stands at about 1 percent, compared with 36 percent in Singapore. Britain has 4.26 million foreign-born workers.
The ministry also noted that more Japanese firms want to hire foreign workers with special skills, especially as companies begin business operations in other Asian countries. There is also a need to hire foreigners who are willing to take jobs that Japanese tend to avoid. The recent hiring of more Indonesian and Filipino nurses and care workers is just one example of internationalizing trends.
Many workplaces are now starting to accept diversity, changing past expectations of homogeneity.
Many other businesses simply need more employees. Some 40 percent of construction companies have reported not having enough workers, an important point considering that Japan will need a lot of construction work for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. However, with more foreigners entering more workplaces in Japan, the possibility of worsening employment conditions needs to be considered and regulations put in place to ensure workers are treated fairly.
At the same time, hiring more foreign workers means that anti-foreign sentiment may increase as a result of some people assuming, wrongly, that hiring more foreign workers means taking jobs from Japanese.
To reduce such frictions, the government and businesses need to create stable, regular employment for all workers. It is not the presence of foreign workers that destabilizes working conditions, but rather employers who exploit cheap labor.
The government needs to prevent such employers from offering positions to those willing to work for the lowest pay.
Both the government and the business sector also need to ensure that all employees receive fair and equal treatment.
Integrating foreign workers into Japanese workplaces, while ensuring that working conditions improve for Japanese workers — especially women — is not an easy task, but it is one that the government should address directly, seriously and urgently.