There has been a lot of discussion recently about allowing more foreign workers into Japan to make up for severe labor shortages in some fields. As of the end of 2014, the labor ministry estimated there were 790,000 foreign nationals working in Japan legally, which is more than the number of national civil servants (640,000).

However, the Japan Civil Liberties Union believes that many employers don’t report the number of foreign workers they use, so the number could be more than 1 million if you go by Ministry of Justice statistics about immigration. A question that is rarely asked, however, is what sort of conditions and wages can foreign workers expect if more were permitted to immigrate?

Officially, the government has said that before it accepts foreign labor it needs to maximize the use of the current potential Japanese workforce, then it will decide which kind of foreign labor is best for boosting the domestic economy. The most favored demographic is foreign workers with good education and needed skills. However, it’s likely that such people are just as valued, if not more so, in their native countries, so it seems unlikely they would go out of their way to seek employment in Japan. After that, the government says it will bring in workers as caregivers for the aging population. The main question about these workers is: How long will they be permitted to stay, and will they be allowed to bring dependents or family members?

The principal sticking point is manual laborers who will do the work that Japanese people don’t appear to want to do. At the moment, the only non-Japanese who take on this sort of work legally are those who are already allowed to be in Japan for other reasons, as well as so-called trainees, who are supposed to be here to learn a skill they can take back to their respective countries. However, it’s generally assumed that they are here mainly to fill manual labor positions in factories or on farms, and for pay that is below the minimum wage. As part of its business growth strategy, the government is now considering extending trainee visas from three to five years.

But even non-Japanese who are legal immigrants and can work freely are often taken advantage of by the system. A recent article in the Asahi Shimbun profiled a man from Bolivia with Japanese ancestry who came to Japan 18 years ago. He currently works for a temporary agency that has dispatched him to Fukushima Prefecture to clean up areas contaminated by radiation. He makes ¥16,000 a day, and says it is the most money he has ever made. However, the environment ministry has “instructed” companies who provide this type of work to pay ¥25,000 a day, although they aren’t required to do so. And while the Bolivian man says that he is satisfied with his pay and the work situation, he had to go to an outside labor union to help him collect wages that weren’t paid to him last summer. He mentions three other non-Japanese colleagues who have had the same problem.

This isn’t to say that these men are being exploited simply because they are not Japanese. But the kinds of jobs they can expect to get are often open to exploitation because the workers don’t have much power nor the ability to communicate readily with employers. The company they work for in Fukushima first told the temporary agency that dispatched them that it didn’t want foreign workers because it thought they would “cause problems.” The only reason they ended up taking them was because they couldn’t find anyone else for the job.

Another sector that the government is talking about in relation to using foreign labor is housekeeping, which traditionally was not a recognized occupation in Japan except when it comes to the hotel industry. The reasoning given by the government for opening up this field to immigration is that it could help more Japanese women enter the workforce. The government is expected to start accepting non-Japanese for housekeeping work this March, at least in specially designated “economic zones,” on condition that they stay for no longer than three years.

In order to get an idea of what this situation might turn into, the Asahi interviewed some foreign housekeepers who are already working here. Usually, they are Southeast Asian women married to Japanese men. A 42-year-old Filipino woman who speaks Japanese that is “good enough for everyday communication” works for a woman in Shibuya, Tokyo, for two shifts a week, three hours per shift. She is paid ¥1,500 an hour plus transportation expenses.

The housekeeper actually works for a service, which says it has 3,000 customers at the moment and is now looking for more workers as the government increases the number of special economic zones. Another temporary employment agency, Pasona, is planning to bring 30 women from the Philippines to Japan under the new program and is currently training them in Japanese language and housekeeping skills in Manila. However, their visas will essentially be the same as a trainee’s, which means they will be limited in scope and period of stay. Pasona’s long-term idea is to provide housekeepers for companies where employees may need extra help with housework due to work obligations. The companies would call Pasona on a needs basis. The problem here is that such solutions may simply exacerbate the problem of overwork that tends to be endemic in Japanese companies.

The main difference between housekeepers in Japan and those overseas is that the law in Japan prohibits live-in maids. Nevertheless, as one lawyer interviewed by the Asahi points out, if the employment of housekeepers becomes more widespread they could supplant more dedicated workers in other occupations, such as day care personnel and caregivers, since housekeepers could mind children and the elderly in the home, thus driving down wages for those occupations. One of the main problems in the field of day care and elderly care is that turnover is high because the pay is already considered too low. If the government really wants to maximize the untapped Japanese workforce before hiring more foreign workers, it has to get wages up.

Yen for Living covers issues related to making, spending and saving money in Japan on the second and fourth Sundays of the month. For related online content, see blog.japantimes.co.jp/yen-for-living.

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