The Abe administration’s sudden plan to use workers from overseas to make up for Japan’s labor shortage has not been given sufficient public discussion. As the policy smacks of merely serving Japan’s convenience, it could cause problems that outweigh the intended benefits.

Particularly problematic is a plan to utilize participants in a controversial foreign trainee program to fill the manpower shortage in the nation’s construction industry. Government leaders should be reminded that the purpose of the Industrial Trainee and Technical Internship Program, which began in 1993, is to transfer skills, expertise, knowledge and technology to developing countries by training those countries’ workers.

After receiving basic training at Japanese companies, the participants are to improve their skills by working at the firms. They can stay in Japan up to three years. Currently some 150,000 participants in the program work in such sectors as construction, textile, food processing, machinery, metal working and agriculture.

The program has often been criticized for breeding violation of the rights of the trainees, who are often underpaid, abused and harassed. The U.S. State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons Report issued in June 2013 criticized the program by citing allegations of “extortionate contracts” and attempts to keep trainees under strict control, most notably by confiscating their passports. Therefore, to rely on such trainees to fill the shortage of construction workers is a deviation from the purpose of the program and will likely raise more suspicions and generate additional criticism.

Japan’s construction industry — which currently faces a dire shortage of manpower — has in fact been shrinking for years. Total construction investment in fiscal 2013 was worth about ¥50 trillion, down 40 percent from its peak in 1992, and the number of people employed in the sector fell 30 percent from the peak year of 1997 to 5 million.

Among them, skilled workers numbered 3.4 million on the average, also down roughly 30 percent. The industry has been hit by years of cuts to the government’s public works spending, and the younger generation has come to shun the hard work at construction sites.

But demand for construction workers suddenly soared with the increase in public works projects for reconstruction of areas devastated by the March 2011 disasters. Also adding to the tight demand were Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s attempts to stimulate the economy with increased public works and the construction boom linked to the 2020 Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo.

In February, there were 3.04 openings for one job application in the construction industry. The corresponding ratio for framing work was as high as 7.37.

Under the government plan, the three-year stay for participants in the foreign trainees program would be extended by up to two years if they work in the construction industry.

If they return to their home countries after completing the training as technical interns and then come back to Japan after a lapse of at least one year, they become eligible to work here for up to three years.

The plan is an expedient policy designed to meet Japan’s own needs under the guise of offering jobs to foreigners. It is set to start in fiscal 2015 and end in fiscal 2020. It is obvious that the Abe administration is trying to use foreign workers as a stopgap to cope with the construction labor shortage.

The scheme would also be likely to give rise to such problems as low wages for foreign workers, adverse effects on the employment of Japanese workers as well as friction in communities between local residents and foreign workers.

In addition, relying on foreign labor could tempt construction firms to employ people without proper visas.

Justice Minister Sadakazu Tanigaki said the government needs to consider possible effects of the scheme on human rights issues as well as peace and order in Japanese society. The government also needs to tackle in earnest the structural problems of the construction industry including the decreasing population of young workers and the graying workforce.

The Abe administration says it will call on associations of construction firms to strictly monitor the behavior of companies that will use the foreign trainees as workers to ensure that the trainees’ rights are fully protected. However, there is no guarantee that such oversight will work as expected.

Abe has also expressed hope of tapping foreign labor to fill the needs for nursing care and housework services for the elderly, whose numbers are rapidly growing as the population grays. The government estimates that in 2025, Japan will need 2.37 million to 2.49 million nursing care workers — who numbered 1.49 million in 2012. This means that the number of such workers must increase by 68,000 to 77,000 annually.

In fiscal 2008, Japan started a program to accept nursing care workers from Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam through bilateral economic partnership agreements with these countries. But owing to language barriers in the certification of applications from these countries, the program has not brought enough foreign workers into the sector.

Japan needs to improve the conditions for nursing care service workers to attract more job applicants.

If the government aims to accept foreigners in large numbers to meet the nation’s manpower needs, it must encourage Japanese citizens to be more receptive to people from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds.

The government should review plans to bring in more foreign workers, for construction or any other sector, to ensure that they are structured to fully protect the rights of qualified foreigners allowed to work in Japan and to avoid social problems that could result from the use of foreign workers.

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