National

Abe asks Cabinet to speed up work on program to accept more foreign workers

Kyodo

Japan will aim to accept more foreign workers from April next year as the nation attempts to deal with a serious labor crunch across many industries, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Tuesday.

Abe told Cabinet members to speed up preparations for a plan that will effectively open the door to blue-collar laborers in addition to the currently accepted highly skilled foreign workers.

The new system may help prevent a scarcity of labor from posing a serious challenge to the economy’s growth prospects, but critics view it as a way to import cheap labor — pointing out that workers from developing countries who receive on the the-job-training in Japan under government-sponsored programs are often found to have experienced poor working conditions.

As part of the plan, which was approved by the Cabinet last month, the government is considering reorganizing the Justice Ministry’s Immigration Bureau, as well as potentially upgrading it to an affiliated agency.

“To create an environment in which foreigners can live smoothly is an important issue,” Abe said during Tuesday’s Cabinet meeting.

The government wants to submit a bill revising the nation’s immigration law to an extraordinary Diet session expected to be convened in the fall.

Before introducing the new system, the government still needs to specify which industries will be eligible to offer foreign nationals jobs and strengthen measures against potential abuse of the system.

Under the plan a new visa status — valid for up to five years in principle — will be created, but workers will be banned from bringing their family members. The new laborers are expected to work mainly at small and medium-sized companies, as well as in the nursing care and agricultural sectors.

They will be required to fulfill certain conditions, including passing skills tests and Japanese language proficiency exams. But people who went through technical training in Japan for more than three years on an existing program will not have to take the tests.

Abe called for a review of the existing labor system at a meeting of the Council on Economic and Fiscal Policy in February.

The nursing care, agriculture, construction, hotel and shipbuilding sectors were initially considered as five areas where unskilled foreign workers could be employed, but the scope of the new framework is likely to be expanded to the manufacturing and fisheries industries.

As demographic shifts mean a greater proportion of the population are becoming seniors, the nation faces a severe labor shortage. In 2017, there were 150 job openings for every 100 workers — the most in over four decades.

Taking the situation in account, “it is inevitable that we must accept” more overseas workers, said Yoshimitsu Kobayashi, chairman of major business lobbying body the Japan Association of Corporate Executives, during a news conference Tuesday.