A government panel on labor reforms such as a narrowing of the pay gap between regular and nonregular workers held its first meeting Tuesday at the Prime Minister’s Office.

The panel will also discuss how to cut working hours and help older people return to the workforce, government officials said. The team will submit its policy proposals in March.

The officials called the changes a “pillar” of structural reforms that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has pledged to carry out.

Japan has seen a surge in the number of nonregular workers compared with those in stable, long-term jobs. This volatile, often low-paid sector includes part-timers and contract workers and now accounts for 40 percent of the workforce.

Nonregular workers get only 60 percent of the wages paid to regular workers on average. The corresponding wage gap in Europe is about 80 percent, according to the government.

The problem affects young and female workers in particular.

Meanwhile, the Nikkei financial newspaper reported Tuesday that the panel will discuss ways to bring in more foreign laborers to fill a shortfall caused by changing demographics.

The government will consider striking bilateral pacts with foreign nations to bring in nurses and construction workers, the Nikkei reported.

It sees this as one way to keep a lid on the number of non-Japanese manual laborers rather than throwing open the doors to all nationals, according to the daily.

But a senior official in charge of the panel denied the Nikkei report.

The panel may discuss this subject, but nothing will be decided before March, the official said.

“Abe’s Cabinet has already decided not to accept immigrants. Lots of studies would be needed if we were to accept more foreign workers,” the official said.

Cabinet policy is not to open the doors to unskilled immigrants.

But given a predicted labor shortage that looks likely to hinder Japan’s long-term economic growth, the government is reportedly considering bringing in more temporary, manual laborers for certain industries, while carefully avoiding calling such workers “immigrants.”

Abe’s Cabinet fears that the word, which connotes non-Japanese long-term residents, would provoke a backlash from conservative voters and politicians.

Abe has pledged to introduce measures to help more foreign professionals live and work in Japan. But there is resistance within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party to loosening controls for low-skilled workers, as lawmakers believe greater competition would fuel tensions with locals.

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