• Jiji

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A new work permit introduced by Japan for overseas workers to help alleviate chronic labor shortages in certain industries has made an unexpectedly poor start, with only 3,987 of them obtaining the “specific skills visa” in the first year of the program, or less than 10 percent of the government’s target.

The weak start has exposed the insufficient preparations for the program launched in April 2019. With the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic unavoidable, the new system is already at a turning point.

There are two ways for foreign workers to obtain the new visa. One is to pass an exam that measures Japanese language proficiency and the skills needed for the industry in which the applicant wants to work. In the other route, for the Type 1 visa for less sophisticated jobs, people who went through technical training in Japan for three years or more can change their visa status to specific skills without taking the exam.

The government expected up to 47,550 foreign workers to secure the new visa in the first year of the program.

Of those holding the visa as of the end of March, more than 90 percent obtained the status via the second route, according to the Immigration Services Agency of Japan.

The number of foreigners who came to Japan after obtaining the visa through exams in their home countries was extremely small due to delays in preparations for necessary procedures, including those to prevent involvement by malicious brokers. The agency is therefore calling for countries, especially those in Asia, to step up preparations to send workers to Japan.

In contrast to the stalled growth of specific skills visa holders, the number of foreigners in the technical intern training program has continued to increase. At the end of last year, the number stood at around 410,000, up 25 percent from a year earlier.

Attributing the lag in transfers from the internship program to the specific skills visa to the limited publicity for the new system and complicated procedures, the agency plans to provide information to employers more actively and simplify the necessary paperwork.

The COVID-19 crisis is adding strain to the new visa program.

“Almost no new workers have come to Japan since April,” due to entry restrictions imposed by the government to address the spread of infections, an agency official noted.

There also are foreign workers who have been thrown into unemployment as a result of the pandemic.

As a temporary measure, the agency is permitting jobless foreign workers to work in sectors not covered by the new visa program. In addition to the maintenance of employment, the measure is aimed at transferring foreign workers from manufacturers and other businesses that are cutting back on operations to sectors that are acutely short-handed, such as agriculture and nursing care.

But pundits question the effectiveness of the ad hoc measure, as those workers will have to return to sectors covered by the new visa system after the coronavirus comes under control.

In June, a special panel on foreign workers in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party proposed that the government add convenience stores to the specific skills visa program.

Convenience stores increasingly hire foreign workers, many of them students, who are banned from working more than 28 hours a week. With the number of non-Japanese people in managerial positions on the rise, calls for full-time work permission are growing in the sector.

Trucking businesses and industrial waste disposal companies are also eager to take advantage of the new visa system in order to alleviate their acute labor shortages.

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