Issues | LABOR PAINS

A new law regarding foreign workers brings up old problems

by Hifumi Okunuki

Contributing Writer

Walk into a restaurant, izakaya (pub) or convenience store in Japan in 2018 and there’s an increasing chance that you’ll be served by someone who wasn’t born in this country.

The language they use is the same — “Irasshaimase” (“Welcome”), “O-matase shimashita” (“Sorry to keep you waiting”), “O-nomimono wa ikaga deshō ka?” (“How about some drinks?”) — and so is the quality of work.

What has changed is the number of tasks they’re having to do. Whether it’s dealing with a customer in a new language who’s angry at the service they’re getting or having to work long hours of overtime to cover for a lack of necessary hiring, the jobs these people are doing are anything but easy.

Yet, “tanjun rōdō” — which means “manual/unskilled labor,” though “tanjun” literally translates as “simple” — is the term used in the Japanese media to describe the recipients of new visas set to be doled out to people coming to this country for work under a system designed by the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. The term conveys the idea that these people have no special abilities or knowledge — but try telling that to someone working late into the night handling all manner of belligerent drunken customers, a task that’s pretty far from “simple.”

Semantics aside, the media narrative tends to imply that this move to create new tanjun rōdō visas by the government is a first for Japan, which is also presented as only now opening its doors to unskilled labor. But foreign workers are already working on our farms, fixing our cars and caring for us when we get old.

On Dec. 8, the Diet passed a bill to overhaul immigration control law. Part of this is the creation of two new visa categories that will affect 14 different industries and eventually allow an estimated 340,000 foreign workers to enter the country. The first category targets “lesser skilled” workers in fields such as nursing care, agriculture and restaurants, while the second category targets more “seasoned” workers with special skills needed for the construction and shipping industries.

Another key component of the proposed legislation: The second category allows for certain family members to accompany the visa holder and offers a path to renewals and/or permanent residency. The first category is limited to five years and family members are not permitted to accompany the visa holder.

Critics have characterized this legislation as Japan plotting a completely new course toward immigration policy, but Abe has denied that this is the case.

“The government is not considering any so-called immigration policy,” Abe told the Diet on Nov. 1. “We are trying to admit to Japan adaptable foreign workers with particular specialized ability and skill only in the industries that truly need them and only for a limited period of time.

“We will go ahead with well-targeted crime-prevention efforts, including measures against illegal and undocumented workers.”

I spoke with three people who work closely with foreigners about their views on the government’s policy to take in more workers.

‘Horrible conditions persist’

Shoichi Ibuski is an attorney and director of the Akatsuki Law Firm based in Tokyo. He also heads the Lawyers Network for Foreign Workers.

How did you get involved in the issue of foreign workers?

In the 11 years that I have been a lawyer, about half of my cases involving foreign people have been related to border control, and half of them labor issues. About a third of the labor ones are related to foreign workers.

I did the Sanwa Service case back in 2009. This was the first time courts finally recognized so-called interns as workers protected by labor law, even though they were called “trainees” at the time. The system morphed into the current technical intern system that at least recognizes them as protected workers from their second month.

Horrible conditions persist, however, as do labor law violations and human rights abuses, despite the fact that technical interns are ostensibly protected by all labor laws.

What do you think of the new visas being created by the government and the policies of admitting more foreign workers?

The only part I can laud is the fact that the special skills Category 2 will open up a path to permanent residence. This is the first manual labor visa to do so. Despite Abe’s denials, it’s hard to see how the policy is anything other than immigration.

However, apart from the creation of a path to permanent residency, other aspects of the bill are full of holes. Technical interns still face horrible working conditions with their rights as workers routinely violated. They have no freedom to change jobs. They suffer from an invasion of privacy. They face sexual harassment, power harassment and bullying, as well as enormous debts that are imposed on them by shady brokers. Many technical interns, unable to cope with these conditions, end up fleeing only to end up being treated like criminals. The system is still one of modern slavery. Before bringing in more foreign workers, the government should eliminate the technical intern system.

‘We’ve learned nothing’

Takafumi Kudo runs the secretariat of the Provisional Release Association in Japan (PRAJ), a mutual-aid organization of around 600 foreigners who have no visas, have been detained at immigration facilities and have then been released provisionally. Kudo says he wants more people in Japan to know of the limbo these people exist in.

How did you get involved with PRAJ?

I was living in Ushiku, Ibaraki Prefecture, a city with a detention center for people who have begun deportation procedures in eastern Japan. A friend of mine was active in meeting with people detained there. Around seven years ago, he got me interested in the issue and that led to my getting involved.

The more I met with the detainees, the more I came to realize how truly miserable their living conditions are. Those who are detained for many years wind up experiencing some form of mental suffering on top of damage to their physical health. Some attempt suicide, some are put in isolation.

Most of them are not criminals, they just want to work in a different country. Many have applied for refugee status and face serious dangers in their home countries. Here they are treated like criminals, though, deprived of their freedom and deported.

Few Japanese know about their situation. The detention centers are also criticized for being run with little transparency.

Yes, when I first learned what was going on, I couldn’t believe it was happening in contemporary Japan. Recently, there has been a bit more coverage from the Japanese media, but we need much more. I want as many people as possible to know about these immigration detention centers.

What’s your take on the government’s policy to bring in more foreign workers?

Put simply, the government apparently has learned nothing. If anything, they are doubling down on their self-serving policies. They don’t care at all about the those detained in the immigration centers. Rather, Abe tries to dispel the population’s anxiety by saying the government intends to crack down even more on illegal foreigners.

Many people came to Japan from overseas during the go-go years of the 1980s, the bubble economy. In the 1990s, Japan needed cheap labor and many foreign people worked here, with law enforcement and immigration turning a blind eye when they had no visas. Despite the tacit understanding and the need, no effort was made to grant them visas or regularize their stay in Japan, so many of them ended up in the detention centers. Japan should grant them special visas. Before coming up with a new policy for foreign workers, they should first confront the human rights violations suffered by detainees today.

‘The rules are too strict’

Dennis Tesolat hails from Toronto and currently chairs the General Union, a multinational amalgamated union with its headquarters in Osaka.

What are your thoughts on the government’s plan to increase foreign workers?

The plan falls well short in terms of numbers. The special skills Category 1 and 2 visas together only add up to 340,000 but that’s not enough to alleviate the chronic labor shortage.

You believe it will have little impact then?

Of course, I know that some praise it as a first step. Already, the government has begun bringing in Vietnamese, Indonesians and Malaysians who meet certain conditions to plug serious shortages of nurses, nursing care workers and social workers. Yet we hear few reports that the shortages have been solved. If they really want to alleviate the shortages, they have to think about really bringing foreigners in.

For example, the special skills Category 1 is limited to five years and prohibits family accompaniment. These rules are too strict, people won’t come. If they do, they will have a lot of trouble due to strict rules. Once they learn the skills, they will return to their home countries with bad memories of Japan, memories that may linger for a long time.

So it might not help anybody?

Right. This is only my own personal impression, but I feel that the government is catering too much to the apolitical majority. Fearing a backlash against bringing in more foreigners, the government came up with this poorly defined bill. A recent Kyodo survey, however, showed that a majority of people believe that more immigrants ought to be accepted into Japan. That is why there should be a straightforward public debate about immigration policy.

Have you ever felt that you were discriminated against in your line of work?

Since labor laws treat Japanese and non-Japanese exactly the same, I haven’t felt disadvantaged much in my role as a union activist. On the other hand, I do not feel that Japanese society sufficiently recognizes participation by all people fairly and equitably regardless of nationality and race. Creating a fair and equal society for all people is not a problem only for foreigners. It also ties in great deal with the daily lives of the Japanese themselves.

Hifumi Okunuki teaches at Sagami Women’s University and serves as executive president of Tozen Union. She can be reached at tozen.okunuki@gmail.com.