Osaka zone a litmus test of foreign worker policy

by Eric Johnston

Staff Writer

A long-sought immigration system that will provide Japanese working families, and working women in particular, with much-needed help and create a more multiethnic Japan, or an ill-considered political sop to female voters that will lead to discrimination and human rights abuses?

That’s the question being asked in Osaka and elsewhere as the prefecture begins discussions with the central government on setting itself up as a specially designated zone to accept foreign domestic laborers.

In June, the Kansai national special zone committee met for the first time in Osaka to discuss the plan, which was announced by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe the same month, to make Kyoto, Hyogo and Osaka prefectures one of six new zones where bureaucratic regulations for industry will be relaxed in the hope of nurturing new industries and creating jobs — for both women and men. On hand for the meeting were Yoshitaka Shindo, state minister in charge of decentralization, Osaka Gov. Ichiro Matsui and Hyogo Gov. Toshizo Ido, as well as senior Kansai business leaders.

But despite the Abe administration’s high-flying rhetoric about the potential of the zones to revitalize local economies, there is great skepticism on the ground over whether the Kansai zone is really what the region needs, and outright cynicism over whether the specific proposal to set up Osaka Prefecture as a foreign domestic workers’ zone is either necessary or a good idea.

Such doubts stem from the vagueness of the proposal, as even the most basic questions about how it will operate have gone unanswered: Which countries will workers come from? How many will be coming? Under what conditions will they be allowed to work? Who will train them? And how will labor or human rights issues be handled if and when they arise?

At the moment, Shindo, Matsui and Osaka prefectural officials involved in the planning for the zone have no direct answers to these questions, saying things are just getting started and still being discussed. New legislation to allow more foreign domestic workers would not likely be enacted until the end of this year at the earliest, meaning the first workers would not arrive until at least 2015. But all said this was a pilot program that may or may not be extended to the rest of the country.

The program was conceived as a way of realizing the Abe administration’s oft-repeated promise to raise the number of women in the workforce, and comes in response to months of pressure on the government to make greater use of the nation’s highly educated female workers by providing greater support for elderly and child care, including the import of foreign domestic labor.

Matsui noted that professional women in particular need help.

“For example, there is a shortage of doctors. But when women physicians reach a certain age, they get married and have kids and leave the workplace and don’t return. If we want such doctors to contribute to society, then help in the home and with child care becomes necessary,” Matsui told reporters in late June.

The Kansai business community has welcomed the proposal, saying that efforts to make better use of the female labor force are urgently needed in areas outside Tokyo where population decline and elderly care services are of great concern. But they have had little to say about the plan for a foreign domestic workers’ zone in Osaka.

One of the few business organizations that has offered advice on foreign domestic workers is the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan. Earlier this year, it called for the country to open up the market for foreign domestic labor, especially to families whose combined annual income exceeds ¥7 million. Under current regulations, only expatriates on diplomatic, investor or business manager visas are able to sponsor foreign domestic workers.

While details of the plan for a deregulated foreign domestic workers’ zone in Osaka have yet to be fleshed out, the problems and issues the central and Osaka prefectural governments need to deal with are already the subject of concern among Japanese and overseas experts and nongovernmental organizations who work with foreign migrant workers.

Kayoko Ueno, a professor of sociology at the University of Tokushima who has researched the impact of foreign domestic workers in other countries, notes that, on the one hand, Japan would offer such workers a higher minimum wage than they would get elsewhere. The influx of immigrant labor, she says, would also make the Kansai region and Japan itself more diverse.

“However, the work they might have to do could turn out to be quite hard; taking care of the children, the house itself, and taking care of the elderly who live there. It’s also difficult for the Japanese government to assure their worker rights. Since they are mostly working inside the private homes of their employers, it’s hard for outsiders to monitor unpaid overtime and other forms of employer maltreatment,” she said.

Two Japanese NGOs, the Asia-Japan Women’s Resource Center and Solidarity Network with Migrants Japan, also criticized what they said was a hasty decision by the government to introduce foreign human resources for domestic work support, seeing the move as a political ploy that sidesteps important questions about men’s responsibilities in the home. They also claim the initiative will fail the women most in need of help.

“While the government celebrates the promotion of further active participation by women in the labor market, there is no concrete means of support or numerical target goals for men’s active participation in housework, child care and elder care, or tending the infirm,” a June 27 statement said.

“On the other hand, domestic work support service . . . as one of the means of promoting women’s active labor participation, is not affordable for women with low incomes, those who actually most need such support,” it added.

Both groups also worry about foreign domestic workers being exploited by unscrupulous brokers.

“Government administration of the brokers is needed, as well as a third party checking them. Not only should the views of labor unions be included when setting up their contracts, but also the views of human rights groups,” said Sumire Hamada, a spokeswoman for the Asia-Japan Women’s Resource Center.

In addition to ensuring workers are given fair contracts and not exploited, especially by wealthier Japanese women and families who want a wide variety of work to be done, there are concerns about what Japan will do to protect foreign domestic workers against human trafficking.

Japan is one of only seven nations, and the only Group of Seven country, that has not ratified a 2000 trafficking in persons protocol to the United Convention against Transnational Organized Crime to prevent, suppress, or punish trafficking in persons, especially women and children. The protocol commits nations to assist and protect victims of trafficking by ensuring their domestic legal systems contain measures offering trafficking victims the possibility of compensation.

It also calls on countries to consider legislative or other measures to allow trafficking victims to remain in their territories temporarily or permanently, depending on the case.

Japan has long been reluctant to grant asylum to refugees of any sort, despite the number of applications increasing in recent years. In 2013, only 6 out of 3,260 refugee applications were granted, while another 151 people received permission to stay in the country for humanitarian reasons.

In its latest Trafficking in Persons report, the U.S. State Department ranked Japan as a Tier 2 country, which means it’s considered a fairly serious violator of immigrant rights.

The report said Japan has not ended the use of forced labor within its government-run Trainee and Technical Internship Program. Thirty-one people were convicted of human trafficking in 2013. Like various international NGOs, the report said Japan’s legal system was insufficient.

“The Japanese government did not develop or enact legislation that would fill key gaps in the law and thereby facilitate prosecutions of trafficking crimes,” it noted.

Japanese officials have indicated they will strengthen laws and regulations to protect foreign domestic laborers. Some also say they want to adopt a best practices approach for the Osaka program. That includes learning the lessons of other countries, especially in Asia, that have put special measures in place for foreign domestic workers.

What that means, exactly, is unclear. Some countries like Singapore have long been the subject of international criticism over the way foreign domestic laborers are treated. The city-state has about 215,000 migrant domestic workers who are not only looking after the elderly and children, but also doing housekeeping.

Jolovan Wham, executive director of HOME, a Singapore-based group that helps migrant workers, says they are mostly from the Philippines, Indonesia, Myanmar, India, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka, and make $325 to $400 per month.

“There are no unions for domestic workers in Singapore. They are required to sign an agreement that they will not take part in illegal, immoral or undesirable activities.

“They are also required to sign a statement saying they will not take part in political activities. They cannot marry a local or permanent resident without permission from the government and are deported if they contract HIV,” he said.

If Japan is serious about adopting a best practices approach to its foreign domestic workers program, he said, there are some basic things it needs to do.

“Foreign domestic workers who go to Japan must have the right to join independent unions. Japan must have bilateral agreements with sending countries and ensure that these workers don’t pay exorbitant agency fees and employers don’t confiscate their passports,” he added.

Matsui, the Osaka governor, said in June that he hoped the next meeting between Tokyo and Osaka officials to discuss the Kansai economic zone as a whole would take place by September, which is when a possible Cabinet reshuffle may occur. The list of questions about foreign domestic laborers in the zone, already long, is likely to grow further and is expected to come under further scrutiny.

How the Abe administration and Osaka Prefecture address these key questions in the Osaka zone will play a large role in determining what kind of foreign assistance Japanese workers, no matter their gender or income bracket, are likely to get in the coming years, and what kind of reputation the country garners abroad as a destination for migrant workers, especially in those nations likely to send their citizens to work in Japanese homes.