Commentary / Japan

Despite legislation, danger of exploiting foreign workers remains

by Walt Gardner

Special To The Japan Times

The new law enacted by the Diet to prevent human rights abuses in the workplace comes on the heels of the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry’s disclosure that nearly 3,700 businesses employing trainees from abroad violated labor laws and work safety rules in 2015. But it alone is unlikely to end the practice in nursing care and other strategic fields where demand exceeds supply.

At least that has been the experience in the United States, whose alleged shortage of workers in technical fields has resulted in pressure to lift the cap on the number of H-1B work visas. Although billed as an immigration issue, the real reason is to control labor costs. According to a study by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, 27 percent of H-1B workers were paid less than the prevailing wage.

Violations of labor laws pertaining to foreign workers are rampant in both Japan and the U.S. But whistleblowers are reluctant to come forward out of fear that doing so will jeopardize their legal status and future employment opportunities. It’s a legitimate concern in these precarious times, since guest workers often come from countries where wages are lower.

Skepticism about the shortage of domestic skilled workers is also partially attributed to employers seeking perfection in those they hire, and then complaining when they can’t fill all openings. For example, the number of computer science graduates in the U.S. rose sharply in the late 1990s during the high-tech boom era, and yet the number of foreign workers did not decline, raising questions about the real reason for importing workers from abroad.

If Japan were to restrict the number of visas offered and instead focus on graduating more highly trained workers at home, the gap between supply and demand would soon narrow and eventually disappear. That’s unlikely to happen, however, as long as foreign trainees can be so easily exploited for profit. Their docility plays into the hands of unscrupulous employers.

Complicating matters, the specific skills gap that Japan faces is partly the result of giving short shrift to “soft skills.” Senior citizens and the disabled have unique needs that transcend traditional training. The ability to establish an empathetic bond with those who require care on a daily basis is not always teachable. Yet it is indispensable.

Rather than throw in the towel, however, there is a way to ameliorate the perplexing problem. Intensive apprenticeships can provide a better fit for openings in critical fields than college degrees. That’s certainly the case for caregivers in Japan’s graying society.

Consider the apprenticeship programs in South Carolina that have increased the number of certified nursing assistants who are fully employed. The state offers a $1,000 annual tax credit to each apprentice on the payroll. For a small business, the credit is enough to erase the education costs for the program. These are the kind of programs that Japan desperately needs.

Whether similar incentives will be offered in Japan is another question. Vested interests, such as the state-sponsored Technical Intern Training Program, will fight hard to preserve the status quo. That’s all the more reason for the Abe administration to follow through on its commitment to eliminate abuses.

Walt Gardner writes the Reality Check blog for Education Week in the U.S.