The announcement of a basic free-trade agreement between Japan and the Philippines at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Forum in Santiago, Chile, was met with a positive response in the Japanese media. Japan, after all, clearly came out ahead: Tariffs on Japanese imported steel products will be substantially lowered in exchange for lower tariffs on Philippine pineapples and bananas.

Bananas aren’t produced in Japan and pineapples are only grown in a small area of Okinawa, so it’s hard to see just what Japan gave up in the negotiations, especially since Tokyo refuses to budge on opening its market to sugar. However, the FTA deal isn’t done just yet, and one of the items that remains high on the agenda is the acceptance of Philippine workers in Japan, specifically nurses and caregivers.

At the moment, the Japanese government is being stingy about a possible acceptance of Philippine nurses. One or two hundred a year are the figures being floated. It’s hardly meaningful for a country where earnings by overseas workers account for 7 percent of the gross domestic product. About 8 million Filipinos work abroad — slightly more than 10 percent of the country’s total population — and send money home.

Generating foreign currency with overseas workers is a de facto economic policy of the Philippines, so it seems obvious that President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo is expecting more from the FTA deal, especially since Japan’s Justice Ministry has just announced it plans to cut the number of annual entertainment visas granted to Filipinos from the current 80,000 to 8,000.

Though the idea of using migrant labor as leverage in trade negotiations is problematic, the Asahi Shimbun found it to be a good idea in a recent editorial, saying that the nursing and care-giving deal can be a positive first step in opening Japan’s labor market.

But in another editorial in the Asahi and an article in the Mainichi Shimbun, the nursing situation was placed in proper perspective. Mainichi points out that Japanese nurses are understandably nervous about Philippine workers undermining their pay levels, which are already low compared to other developed countries. In the Asahi editorial, a Filipino NGO explains that the demand for nurses in developed countries is so great that nurses have been leaving the Philippines in large numbers. In Manila’s public hospitals the nurse-to-patient ratio is now 1:100. Even Filipino doctors are getting nursing licenses because they can make more money abroad as nurses than they can as physicians in their home country.

At present, foreign nurses have to graduate from a Japanese nursing school before they can work in Japan, but under the proposed plan Filipino nurses simply must be able to speak Japanese and pass a test for nurses. Prospective nurses will be allowed to come to Japan for four years, during which time they can take the test as often as possible. If they fail to pass by the end of the four-year period, they have to leave.

What will they do in those four years? As with holders of the so-called training (kenshu) visa, it’s presumed they can work as they study — Japanese language, nursing, whatever. But what kind of jobs can they get?

The elderly care insurance system (kaigo hoken) is already bankrupt, and the windfall it was supposed to provide in terms of employment has not materialized. In yet another editorial in the Asahi, a nursing home assistant manager says that the turnover for care-givers is enormous because of the long hours and low pay. Obviously, inexpensive workers are needed to maintain the kaigo system, and that seems to be one of the purposes of the FTA deal. For the most part, care-giving involves housekeeping for incapacitated seniors, and most female Filipino migrant workers are housekeepers. More importantly, they work for lower pay than Japanese do; or, at least, they are expected to.

The Japanese government is cutting the number of entertainment visas for Filipinos because the United States said last June that Japan is not doing enough to prevent human trafficking. It’s assumed that many of the Filipino women who come to Japan with entertainer visas are forced to work in the sex industry.

No one will argue that housekeeping and care-giving are not better lines of work than prostitution, but the occupation is not the issue. The problem is that Filipinos are being encouraged to leave their homes for years at a time to work in foreign countries where, despite efforts by the Philippine government to protect them, they are invariably treated as second-class citizens. (You can be sure the Japanese government won’t let them settle here.) And in most cases, these workers do not acquire skills. In the process, Filipino families are broken and a cycle of low pay and low self-regard is engendered.

What’s ironic is that Japan provides 63 percent of the Philippines’ overseas development assistance, more than any other country (the U.S. is second with 13 percent). In principle, the purpose of ODA is to help the recipient country become more economically self-sufficient, but if Japan goes ahead and imports Filipino labor in order to facilitate the FTA and satisfy its need for inexpensive caregivers it will be contradicting the spirit of ODA.

There is even a proposal for using Japanese ODA to set up language schools in the Philippines where potential nurses and caregivers can learn Japanese before they come to Japan . Who exactly is this “assistance” benefiting? Trafficking is trafficking, even when it’s government-approved.