Japan looks to offer longer stays for technical interns, with caveats it hopes will limit immigration debate

Kyodo, Staff Report

Japan is weighing the creation of a new status of residence that would allow technical interns from abroad to stay longer in the country, as part of efforts to tackle severe labor shortages, sources said Wednesday.

But interns’ families would not be allowed to enter Japan — a provision meant to prevent the creation of the new status from leading to discussions on the sensitive issue of immigration, the sources said.

The status would allow those who have completed a five-year technical intern training program and meet certain requirements to stay and work for up to five additional years, the sources said.

The government will incorporate the plan into its fiscal and economic policy blueprint to be put together around June. A bill introducing the measure, through a revision to the Immigration Control Law, is likely to be submitted to the Diet during an extraordinary session in the fall, according to the sources.

Debate on whether to expand the scope of foreign nationals permitted to work has been underway since Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called for a review of the existing framework in February.

With the technical intern training program intended to transfer skills abroad, interns currently must return to their home countries after a five-year stay. The new residency status would allow interns to stay in Japan to work for a maximum of five more years. The government plans to set requirements to obtain the status, including industry-specific ones, the sources said.

But according to a Nikkei business daily report, trainees will still have to return to their home after their programs end, and then apply for the new residence status that would allow them to work again in Japan for a further five years.

This is apparently aimed at keeping trainees and interns from gaining eligibility to apply for permanent residency, for which one of the prerequisites is to be living in Japan for 10 years or more.

Those who have already completed the trainee program and returned to their home countries can also apply for the new status of residence, the report said.

The report also said that trainees with the new work permit would be able to gain highly-skilled professional status if they pass an examination, which would enable them to bring their families to Japan and to renew their visas.

The new work permit would be given to those working in nursing, agriculture and construction — sectors where labor shortages are most severely felt, the sources said.

Labor shortages are already severe, especially in the service sector. In 2017, there were 150 job openings for every 100 workers — the largest gap in over four decades.

The number of foreign workers has been on the rise in recent years, hitting an all-time high of approximately 1.28 million as of last October. Of that total, the number of technical interns stood at around 250,000, according to government data.

The technical intern program, which was formally created in 1990 for the purpose of transferring skills in the industrial, agricultural and fisheries sectors to developing economies, has become an essential part of Japan’s labor force amid the nation’s demographic woes.

Abe has officially declared that his administration will never adopt “an immigration policy” to make up for the continuing acute labor shortage, despite a rapidly thinning workforce.

The program was designed to support foreign nationals in their acquisition of technical skills, but has been criticized as a cover to exploit cheap labor from abroad. Many cases have been reported of trainees being subjected to illegally long work hours and physical abuse from employers.

In March, it was revealed that a Vietnamese man who came to Japan under the program was allegedly forced to take part in decontamination work in areas hit by the 2011 nuclear disaster. The Justice Ministry has begun investigating the case.

To eliminate violations by companies employing vocational trainees, a new law came into effect in November obliging employers to secure accreditation for their training programs. Under the law, employers found to have physically abused the trainees are subject to imprisonment of up to 10 years or a fine of up to ¥3 million. Other moves, such as denying compensation claims or confiscating passports, are regarded as violation of the Labor Standards Law and are also subject to punishment.