The Cabinet of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Friday approved the creation of a new category of visa for foreign nurses and caregivers as part of efforts to fill a shortage in the workforce.

Drafted by the Justice Ministry and requiring Diet approval, the proposal to amend the immigration law mainly targets exchange students studying nursing care in Japanese universities and vocational schools. It would enable them to stay in the country and find a permanent job after graduation.

It reflects recommendations made by a panel of third-party immigration experts to Justice Minister Yoko Kamikawa in December. In its report, the panel urged the nation to pursue highly skilled foreign talent more aggressively.

The amendment proposal is slated to be submitted in a bill to the current Diet session.

Currently, foreign nurses and caregivers are allowed to work in Japan only under bilateral Economic Partnership Agreements, which exist with Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam. The new visa category will give aspiring nurses and caregivers opportunities regardless of nationality.

To qualify, applicants would have to pass the national exam for care workers.

Like other working visas, the new status is renewable, granting foreign nurses the potential to settle in the country.

Japan’s short-handed nursing industry is notorious for its low pay and labor-intensive work, which causes low retention. The welfare ministry said annual turnover was 16.6 percent in fiscal 2013.

Exchange students with a nursing degree from Japanese universities should be “most welcome” to enter the industry, the panel said in its December report, citing their likely skill set and strong command of the Japanese language.

Meanwhile, the Cabinet also approved a separate immigration-related bill proposed by the ministry to overhaul a state-backed foreign internship program that critics have called tantamount to forced labor.

The bill calls for the establishment of a state-run oversight body tasked with eradicating malpractice by employers and firming up guarantees for foreigners’ human rights.

Specifically, the body will be authorized to conduct an on-site investigation into interns’ working conditions and examine the tuition they are receiving. It will also create a complaints system where victims of human rights abuses can blow the whistle on malpractice.

It also calls for the maximum period of internship to be extended from the current three years to five years.

The bill will also prohibit employers from using physical force, threats or confinement.

Furthermore, it secures greater protections for interns’ freedom to move, forbidding employers from confiscating their passports and residence cards — one reason why the current program is denounced as allowing forced labor.

The internship initiative, dubbed the Industrial Trainee and Technical Internship Program, kicked off in 1993 purportedly as part of Japan’s “international contribution” to foster basic industrial skills in developing countries.

Critics viewed it as an attempt by the government to lure cheap foreign labor.

“I’m aware there are many voices of criticism over the program,” minister Kamikawa said after the Cabinet meeting Friday morning.

“But I hope the bill will lead to a more legitimate operation of the program and rectify its problems.”

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