The government’s move to expand the scope of its program for accepting professional and highly skilled foreign workers to cope with Japan’s manpower shortage appears to shed light on contradictions in immigrant labor policy. While maintaining an official position of not opening the door to foreign workers engaging in unskilled labor, the Abe administration will consider broadening the program’s targets to include such sectors as nursing care, farming, construction and retail — which face intensifying manpower shortages as the population rapidly ages and shrinks.

Still, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told a recent meeting of the Council on Economic and Fiscal Policy that his administration has no plans to adopt a policy of relying on immigration to cover the labor shortage. An upper limit will be set on the duration of stay of the workers who are accepted under the expanded scheme, and family members will in principle not be allowed to accompany them, so that they would not be counted as immigrant labor but as temporary guest workers.

Despite the nation’s tightening manpower shortage, the issue of immigrant labor continues to be shunned in policy discussions. Due to deep-rooted social sensitivities over immigration, it is not clear whether it is the right answer to the manpower problem. But it’s about time that the issue is put on the agenda of open and broad-based public discussion so the nation can set its policy straight.

Under the Immigration Control Law, visa categories for professional and skilled foreign workers currently include university professors, business managers, medical professionals, those engaging in legal or accounting services, and researchers. Abe, who ordered relevant ministries and agencies to weigh expanding the scope of the program to cover other sectors, said he would like to set a policy direction by this summer.

While upholding an official ban on workers coming to Japan to engage in simple labor, the government has been seeking to invite more skilled and professional foreign workers. But the number of foreign workers in this country has risen to record highs and it is those engaging in low-paying unskilled labor who account for a major portion of the increase.

According to the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry, the number of registered foreign workers reached 1.28 million as of last October, up 18 percent from a year earlier. Last year’s figure represented an increase of about 500,000 in just three years. Despite the government’s policy to encourage more professional and skilled workers from overseas to work in this country, the number of foreign students engaging in part-time jobs and those in the Technical Intern Training Program — who come to Japan supposedly to acquire technical skills and knowledge while working here and bring them back home — is rising faster. Those on student visas to study at universities, technical colleges and language schools here engaging in part-time work rose 24 percent over the past year to 259,000, while the number of technical trainees increased 22 percent to 258,000.

Many of those people are hired to compensate for the domestic labor shortage. Labor ministry data show that 58 percent of foreign workers are hired by small businesses with fewer than 30 employees, many of which face increasing difficulty securing the manpower they need. Technical trainees account for about 40 percent of the foreign workers in the manufacturing sector, while 60 percent of the workers engaging in service sector jobs are student part-timers.

It is undeniable that Japan can no longer do without such foreign workers — who are not supposed to be here for the purpose of employment. The Technical Intern Training Program, which is meant as a form of transferring job skills and knowledge to developing countries, has been expanded effectively as a means to supply cheap labor to domestic sectors like farming, fisheries and construction that increasingly can’t secure sufficient manpower. Criticism abounds that the trainees are being exploited under abusive working conditions.

The government’s latest policy move may represent an attempt to shift away from relying on the technical interns and student part-timer workers to cover the nation’s manpower shortage. But the limits that will be imposed on the scheme to prevent it being used as a source of immigrant labor — an upper limit on the duration of stays for workers and the ban on family members accompanying them to Japan — could make it unclear whether this nation will be an attractive place for the workers, as it is hoped. It should be examined whether the new scheme will serve its intended purpose.

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