The government will allow skilled non-Japanese to work in the agricultural sector in special economic zones to alleviate the farming labor shortage.
“We have decided to add the employment of foreign workers in the agricultural sector … to the menu for strategic special zones,” Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told a meeting Monday of an advisory council on the national strategic special zones.
The offer is expected to be restricted to applicants who can meet skill criteria — for example, having studied agriculture at the university level in their home countries — and have some ability to communicate in Japanese.
Employers in the special zones will be required to pay the foreign workers at least as much as they do Japanese performing the same job.
This departs from the existing system introduced in 1993 allowing unskilled trainees from developing countries to work in agriculture and other fields in pursuit of skill qualifications.
That system, expected to be retained separately, has been criticized as a vehicle for forced cheap labor from countries such as China, Vietnam and the Philippines. Cases of migrant workers being trapped in oppressive conditions have also been documented under the system.
In fiscal 2014, around 24,000 unskilled trainees were accepted by Japanese farms for a training period of up to three years, according to the agriculture ministry.
The advisory council agreed on the need to carefully monitor the human rights of foreign workers as well as the potential impact on the labor market for Japanese that comes with accepting more foreign workers.
Under the new system, regulators are to conduct audits of employers on a regular basis to ensure appropriate working conditions.
The special strategic zones targeted to receive skilled foreign farm workers are in Akita, Ibaraki, Aichi and Nagasaki prefectures.
Kozo Yamamoto, minister for regional revitalization, told reporters after the meeting that the government will now work out the specifics of the system with the aim of submitting an amendment to the law on strategic special zones during the next ordinary Diet session early next year.
Those aged 65 or older accounted for some 63.5 percent of the 2.10 million people in Japan who counted farming as their principal occupation in 2015, according to government data.
At the same meeting, the government decided to allow small-scale day care centers in strategic special zones to look after children up to 5 years old. Existing rules limit them to caring for children up to 2 years old.
The move is aimed at tackling a day care shortage to help parents of young children who want to return to work or to work more hours.