With Japan on track to open its doors wider to foreign workers to address its labor crunch, challenges loom over how to ensure good working environments and integrate people with different languages and cultures into society.
Experts warn that the new visa system, likely to start in April, may end in failure unless authorities take steps to address the problems foreign nationals who currently engage in simple labor in Japan face, such as abuse by employers and isolation within communities.
In particular, the government has faced criticism over the treatment of foreign workers who come from developing countries to serve as technical interns, with human rights violations faced by such laborers highlighted in recent years.
“I fear that the new system may end up as a rerun of the technical intern program,” said Shoichi Ibuski, a lawyer who has been involved in helping foreign nationals who face harsh working conditions.
Some technical interns have spoken out in public about their plights. Eng Pisey, a 33-year-old Cambodian trainee in Gifu Prefecture, was among them.
“I am very, very sad,” she said at a news conference in Tokyo in late November, explaining that she fell ill after often working from early in the morning to 2 or 3 a.m., even on holidays. She said she was only paid ¥300 to ¥500 per hour, far less than the ¥800 minimum wage set in the prefecture in 2017.
“Nobody told me about the cheap salary (before coming to Japan). … I just want to go home,” she said.
Unable to work, she is now in a shelter and apparently has no means of repaying a debt of $4,000 she ran up after paying brokers to come to Japan, leaving behind her son.
“Such a story is not uncommon among technical interns,” Ibuski said.
Japan introduced the technical intern program in 1993 in the name of transferring skills to developing countries, and interns accounted for about 20 percent of Japan’s 1.28 million foreign workers as of the end of October last year.
But the program, which does not allow workers to bring family members to Japan and bars them from switching workplaces, has faced criticism as a cover for importing cheap labor. More than 7,000 interns fled from workplaces in the last year alone, according to the Justice Ministry, likely because of low wages and long working hours. The government has promised that under the new visa system, foreign laborers, many of whom are expected to be blue-collar workers, will be guaranteed the same level of pay as Japanese engaging in the same work.
But Ibuski said the new system “does not include much detail on reining in brokers,” who it is believed may come to play a similar role in workers’ entry as they do with technical interns, exploiting them by collecting various fees.
“That’s where the biggest problem lies,” he added, noting that 98 percent of labor law violations go unreported as interns are reluctant to be vocal about unjust conditions out of fear they may lose their jobs and be left with the debts they incurred in coming to Japan.
How to better manage the technical intern program remains an important issue as interns will be allowed to switch their visas to the newly created ones, enabling them to extend their stay and change jobs within the same sector.
Some aid organizations plan to step up efforts to enhance the country’s preparedness for a host of labor-linked and other issues that may occur once the new system is in place.
Shigeru Yamashita, managing director of the Tokyo-based Vietnam Mutual Aid Association in Japan, said the association has collected the opinions of people who are currently working in Japan on how the system can be better managed and conveyed their thoughts to the administration bodies or other organizations involved.
The organization, launched in May to help Vietnamese working in Japan, has been providing consultation services through social networks including Facebook and recently began acting as a middleman in passing on workers’ complaints to companies they work for.
The group also began crowdfunding to create a call center to accept consultations from Vietnamese people on various issues involving work and life in Japan in their mother tongue.
By nationality, Vietnamese make up the largest portion of technical interns with 106,000 such workers in Japan, followed by Chinese and Filipinos.
If Japan continues to fail to improve the treatment of foreign workers, many of them may eventually turn away and head for other countries such as South Korea, where procedures are much simpler and are strictly controlled by the government, Yamashita said.
While many of the details of the new system are yet to be decided, Keizo Yamawaki, a migrant integration policy expert, said the change will have the positive aspect of helping to normalize a situation in which Japan has relied on backdoor channels — such as the technical intern program — to secure blue-collar workers.
The professor at Meiji University also said policies for supporting their daily lives and employment are necessary but that the key to making the new round of accepting foreign workers a success is to work on achieving integration.
When Japan revised its immigration control law in 1990 and started accepting second- and third-generation Japanese-Brazilians, frictions between existing community members and the newcomers grew over customs such as garbage disposal, noise and illegal parking, while language barriers also kept them apart.
Yamawaki believes the Japanese government should move quickly to financially assist municipalities in their preparations to enhance multilingual services and share model cases of integration, saying delays in responding to the situation in the 90s gave way to confrontations between Japanese and Brazilians which even led, in one case, to a teenage boy being killed in a group assault.
Yamawaki also called for introducing a law that prohibits all forms of discrimination against foreign nationals — as is found in other developed countries — and educating Japanese people starting in elementary school about creating an accommodative atmosphere.
“Unless we try to nurture views that foreign people are contributing to Japanese society, an increase in the number of foreigners could lead to more discord and possibly spread prejudice and discrimination,” he said.