Wrong way to import workers

The government’s plan to expand the foreign trainee internship program to cover manpower shortages in nursing-care services for the elderly is problematic in multiple ways. It deviates from the purpose of the program to promote technical transfers to developing economies by training internees from those countries, while failing to properly address problems in the program, which is criticized for being widely used as a cover for exploiting low-cost labor from overseas. The government should explore other ways of securing enough nursing-care workers to meet the increasing needs of Japan’s rapidly aging population.

The Abe administration wants to make up for the domestic manpower shortage by using the Technical Intern Training Program to increase the number of foreign workers. It has already decided to extend the maximum training period of foreign workers employed at construction firms from three to five years beginning in fiscal 2015 as an emergency measure to cope with serious labor shortage in the sector, where demand for labor has been rising due to reconstruction work in areas hit by the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami as well as public works projects to prepare for the 2020 Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo.

Nursing care for the elderly is another sector where the labor supply is increasingly tight. As the aging of the Japanese population accelerates, the government estimates that the nation will need 700,000 more nursing-care workers in 2025, by which time all of the postwar baby boomer generation will have turned at least 75 years old. However, care-service providers face a chronic staff shortage for the physically demanding but low-paying jobs.

In recent years, Japan has been accepting care-service workers from Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam under free trade agreements with those countries. But their number has been limited due to the language barrier that must be overcome to pass the national license test in Japanese, with only about 240 of the roughly 1,500 people who have come to Japan as candidates having successfully obtained the license.

Under the Technical Intern Training Program, introduced in 1993, roughly 160,000 trainees from overseas — many from China and Vietnam — were working in 69 categories of jobs such as farming, fisheries, manufacturing and construction as of June last year. Most trainees come to Japan under contracts between overseas recruitment groups and domestic recipient organizations, and are then hired by businesses across the country under contracts with the recipient organizations. If the program is expanded to nursing care, it will be the first time that trainees would engage in work that involves face-to-face interaction with consumers. A draft plan by the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry requires the trainees to have a basic understanding of Japanese when they start and be able to understand daily conversations by the beginning of their second year.

But criticism of the program abounds. While the trainees are covered by Japan’s labor laws, there are widespread reports of long working hours under severe conditions, low and unpaid wages as well as abuses such as trainees being confined or being banned from contacting other trainees. Roughly 80 percent of 2,300 businesses employing trainees covered by the ministry’s 2013 on-site inspections were found to have violated labor regulations, including safety violations and failure to pay minimum legal wages. Whereas the program is supposed to promote transfer of job skills to developing economies through the trainees, many of the employers — mostly small businesses — are said to utilize them as low-cost manual laborers — positions that they have difficult filling with Japanese workers.

In pushing to expand the scope of the program, the government plans to tighten oversight of the recipient organizations and companies hiring trainees. A new oversight body would be empowered to carry out on-site inspections of employers, and issue warnings and guidance on labor offenses. Still, experts familiar with the situation doubt if such measures can effectively root out widespread labor violations and abuses of trainees’ rights.

It is inappropriate to expand the foreigner trainee program at Japan’s own convenience. If indeed the nation needs foreign workers to fill its manpower needs, the government should consider a new system of accepting such labor on a longer-term basis — rather than under the guise of an technical internship program.