Businesses reliant on a foreign blue-collar workforce are struggling to fill openings as the coronavirus pandemic slows immigration procedures to a crawl both in Japan and abroad.

The global crisis has left stranded hundreds of foreign nationals who were set to join the Japanese workforce in labor-hungry industries under a government-sponsored work permit program introduced in April last year, said Shoko Sasaki, commissioner of the Immigration Services Agency, on Thursday.

The crisis has led Japan, China and many other Asian countries to implement travel bans and strengthen border controls, preventing those workers from coming to Japan.

In addition, social distancing measures to reduce infection have also suspended required skill and language tests in Vietnam, the Philippines and other countries, further delaying the process for the program, which has already been slow to catch on.

According to the agency, 8,343 people from countries including Vietnam, China and Myanmar were in the midst of application procedures for work in Japan as of March 13. Of them, 4,738 job-seekers have already been granted permission to work in Japan under the new working visa program, but many of them are still unable to obtain working visas due to the coronavirus crisis.

To address the problem, the agency will extend the period during which candidates can finish final procedures in Japan, from three to six months, so they don’t need to reapply when the situation clears up, Sasaki said. She added that those who went back to their home countries temporarily but weren’t able to return to Japan due to the coronavirus will also be allowed to come back even if their re-entry permit’s period has expired.

This virus crisis “is not only affecting workers but also other foreigners including students (scheduled to travel to or from Japan) at the end of the academic year,” Sasaki said during a group interview with reporters Thursday. “Many people who were planning to return to their home country have been stuck in Japan while those who have been granted visas have been left in limbo as well.”

In April, Japan created new visa statuses for blue-collar workers with certain skills to help ease labor shortages in 14 sectors, including nursing services, agriculture and hospitality. Over a five-year period, up to 345,000 are expected to enter the country under the program.

Implementation of the blue-collar program was already behind schedule before the coronavirus outbreak, partly due to complex procedures in Japan and precautionary steps by states abroad to protect those applying, which resulted in lengthy negotiations between Japan and the home countries of prospective workers. “Amid the coronavirus crisis, we cannot proceed with the arrangements with China,” Sasaki said.

She also said that due to the outbreak, Vietnam has yet to introduce industrial skill and Japanese-language tests, which are among the criteria for candidates to qualify for the program. The Philippines was also forced to postpone its first construction skills test scheduled for March 17. “But many business owners in Japan are in need of workers from both countries,” she noted. “I just hope the situation gets back to normal and the program gets back on track.”

As of March 13, 10,713 had passed skills tests taken in Japan and abroad, according to the Immigration Services Agency.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.