National

Language skills among foreign care workers a concern for nursing home officials

Kyodo

While a new visa system approved by the Diet, set to take effect in April, has been welcomed by Japan’s labor-short nursing care businesses, questions remain about how to provide sufficient Japanese-language education for foreign workers.

Despite steps taken by the government in recent years to relax rules on foreign workers in the sector, language skills have been a major barrier.

Vu Thi Thu Trang from Vietnam is among those who could obtain working status after the government eased the requirement for foreign nationals to work as caregivers.

The 31-year-old certified caregiver, who came to Japan in 2014, said she first found out about nursing care work while studying at a Japanese language school. She then entered a caregiver vocational school and finished a two-year curriculum earlier this year.

“I’m happy when people say ‘Thank you’ to me. It makes me realize I’m doing something good,” said Trang, who has been working in Tokyo since June.

Foreign students who became certified caregivers like Trang were not eligible to remain in Japan for work until a legal amendment in September last year.

Still, the relaxed rule did little to address the labor shortage for nursing facilities. As of June this year, only 177 foreigners were working in the country’s nursing care industry after earning caregiver certifications.

There are currently two other ways for foreigners to work as caregivers in Japan. The first is to participate in a work program provided under an economic partnership agreement (EPA) and gain a certificate while working at a nursing home. The other is using Japan’s technical intern program.

However, a high Japanese-language competency requirement has prevented either of the programs from delivering a significant increase in the number of certified caregivers.

Those who passed a national exam to become a certified caregiver during their stay under the EPA program totaled 719 since between fiscal 2008 and 2017. After nursing care was added to the list of occupations for the technical intern program in November last year, only 247 trainees came to Japan.

By providing the new status from April, the government has said it expects to accept 5,000 foreign workers in the nursing sector during the first year and up to 60,000 over five years.

Between the two new resident statuses created under the new visa system, the first type — valid for up to five years — is for people to engage in work that requires a certain level of knowledge, including nursing care. The second type is for work that needs higher-level skills.

Applicants for the new working status will be required to pass exams in Japanese-language and technical skills. Those who wish to work as caregivers will need to be skilled at levels equivalent to those of people who have received three years of training.

“I wonder if there are foreigners who meet such requirements,” one nursing home official said.

Trang said Vietnamese who are looking to work abroad may not necessarily be attracted to the jobs that are being made available in Japan.

“In Vietnam, jobs in the automobile and computer industries are popular. There are many people who say they will choose South Korea or Taiwan,” Trang said.

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