National | Regional voices: Chubu

Small Japanese firms fear foreign laborers will abandon them when new visas kick in

Chunichi Shimbun

As Japan braces for a fresh influx of foreign workers from the new visa system starting next month, small and midsize firms fear the system will end up helping only major firms in large cities, since those who qualify for the two new “specified skills” visas will be free to switch companies in the same sector.

Although the immigration law was revised to cope with the nation’s severe labor shortage, small companies feel they will continue to struggle to secure competent workers because they have to compete with big-name companies offering higher pay.

Foreign trainees who meet certain criteria also will be able to switch to one of the new visas without extra testing, so companies are additionally concerned they might suddenly decide to go and work for a bigger company.

At an auto parts maker in Nishio, Aichi Prefecture, six of the roughly 30 employees are trainees from China, Vietnam and Indonesia operating machinery to produce screws and check finished products.

“They work hard and are quick to learn their jobs,” said Kosuke Okada, 42, the president of the company. “They are a vital workforce amid the labor shortage.”

The company, which has been struggling to find Japanese workers, started hiring Brazilians and Peruvians of Japanese descent in the 1990s. But many of them chose to switch to larger companies to get higher pay and better benefits.

After learning about the technical intern program, Okada started accepting foreign trainees about 10 years ago. Because they are basically not permitted to change employers during their stay, he depended on the program as a way to secure enough staff.

But since they will be allowed to upgrade their visas starting in April, Okada fears some of the newly hired ones might move to larger companies, just like the Japanese-Brazilians and Japanese-Peruvians did in the past.

The firm has taken measures to improve working conditions, such as offering raises depending on experience and installing air conditioners in its factory. But nothing seems to work, Okada said.

“At the end of the day, we don’t have the resources to take on big companies,” he said.

The new visa system offers two residence statuses — one for those with skills in 14 labor-hungry sectors, including nursing care and agriculture, and one for those with higher skills in two specific sectors — construction and shipbuilding. Changing jobs is permitted in the same sector.

In mid-November, when the bill to revise the immigration law was under deliberation in the Diet, Human Resource Support Corporative Association Tokai, an intermediary body in Hekinan, Aichi Prefecture, that acts as a broker and support center for foreign trainees, held a seminar for companies in nearby Anjo.

Attending were officials of organizations that dispatch technical interns from Vietnam and Indonesia to Japan. It has become increasingly difficult to recruit people for training in Japan, they emphasized.

An official from Human Resource Support, which sends trainees to about 100 firms in the Chubu region, said competition for labor has become international.

“To secure human resources, companies now have to compete not only against rivals within Japan but also overseas. Small companies, which have already been at a disadvantage, should change their mindset and offer better conditions,” the official said.

According to Human Resource Support, corporate reputations spread quickly via social media. Competition is likely to intensify and there are concerns that more workers will converge on metropolitan areas.

Since the central government has yet to take effective measures to cope with these concerns, the only advice for small and midsize firms in the region right now is “to make efforts to be chosen by foreign people,” the official said.

This section features topics and issues from the Chubu region covered by the Chunichi Shimbun. The original article was published March 15.

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