The government is considering creation of a new term-limited residence status for foreigners who have finished the Technical Intern Training Program that would reportedly allow them to stay and work in Japan for up to five years. It would be a step forward if the new status indeed leads to improvement in their work conditions; some of them are allegedly subjected to abusive labor practices while working as interns. It should also help address the increasingly tight manpower shortages that confront employers in various sectors.

The measure is in response to an order given by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during a February meeting of the government’s Council on Economic and Fiscal Policy, for a prompt review of the existing framework of accepting foreign workers in the face of the labor crunch brought on by the nation’s aging and declining population.

The plan is likely to be featured in the government’s fiscal and economic policy blueprint to be compiled sometime around June. A revision to the Immigration Control Law to introduce the measure could be submitted to the Diet as early as this fall.

The Technical Intern Training Program, launched in 1993, is meant to enable participants who hail from developing countries to acquire job skills and techniques while working at Japanese companies and farms, and take the skills back to their home countries to contribute to economic development there. Last year, their maximum stay under the program was extended from three to five years, and elderly nursing care was added to the sectors in which the trainees are allowed to work.

The planned measure will allow participants in the program who have completed the maximum five years of training and meet certain criteria to stay up to five more years, thus enabling them to work a total of 10 years here. This could indeed lead to significant increases in foreign workers in this country. The sectors to which the new residence status will be applied reportedly include nursing care, agriculture and construction, where the shortage of domestic workers is increasingly acute. To avoid the new scheme from being linked to immigration policy, the workers under the planned status will not be allowed to bring their families to Japan.

The government officially prohibits non-Japanese from engaging in unskilled labor, while seeking to invite more foreign workers with professional expertise in such jobs as education, legal services and business management. But as the number of foreign workers in Japan as of last October rose 18 percent from a year earlier to hit a record 1.28 million, much of the increase has come in unskilled labor, with the work needs in such fields being filled by people whose purposes in Japan are not supposed to be employment, such as technical interns and students from overseas. In the manufacturing sector, roughly 40 percent of the foreign workers are participants in the technical training program.

It is indisputable that employers in many sectors depend on foreign workers to run their business. It makes more sense for the government to create a new residence status — albeit limited — for the foreign workers whom Japan needs to fill the gap in its manpower needs, than to keep expanding the scope of the technical internship program, which is not meant as a tool for supplying cheap labor. It needs to be made certain that the planned measure will not result in just effectively extending the duration of the training program.

Aside from the creation of a new status for foreign workers, the technical intern training system itself needs an overhaul. Reports abound of cases in which the participants’ rights as workers are abused, such as illegally low pay, unpaid wages, excessively long work hours and workplace violence and harassment. Legislation implemented last November provided for punishment against abuse of the rights of the technical interns and tightened official supervision of the businesses that hire the trainees. Labor authorities need to step up their oversight of the program to make sure that such abuses are eliminated.

What to do about the nation’s immigration policy, which officially bans the use of foreign workers for unskilled labor, will continue to be a long-term challenge. Discussions on the issue are not going to yield quick and easy answers, because of public sensitivities over the question and its social implications. However, the contradictions between the government’s official policy and the reality of dependence on foreign labor cannot be left unattended forever.

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