With the government planning to introduce a new visa status next April to accept more foreign workers, demand from companies suffering from the manpower shortage is so high that officials are reportedly weighing expanding the sectors to be included in the program’s initial stage. To start, the new status was to cover agriculture, construction, shipbuilding, lodging services and elderly nursing care, but these may be joined by manufacturing, fisheries and food processing. That is yet another indication that the Japanese economy, despite the government’s official policy of not accepting simple labor from overseas, already relies heavily on foreign workers.
But as the government’s new program will effectively lift the ban on low-skilled foreign workers, steps must also be taken to ensure that their rights as workers are protected and adequate living conditions in this country assured. These steps will be needed for Japan to win the tightening competition with other countries to attract enough workers it needs from abroad.
Since the government’s plan to create the new status for foreign workers was unveiled in June, Aichi Prefecture — home to a large numbers of manufacturing firms such as automakers and machine tool companies — requested that the government include manufacturers among the sectors eligible to accept workers under the new status. As the local manufacturing companies continue to enjoy brisk business, small and medium-size firms in the prefecture that supply the manufacturers are reportedly facing a tightening manpower situation. As most recent school graduates are recruited by major companies, many of these smaller enterprises reportedly depend on participants in the Technical Intern Training Program to fill their staffing needs.
Last year, the number of registered foreign workers in Japan hit a record 1.28 million, an increase of 190,000 from the previous year and nearly double the level five years earlier, according to labor ministry data. While the government officially does not allow non-Japanese to provide unskilled labor, more than 40 percent of the foreign workforce is made up of technical interns and students from overseas — most of whom are engaged in low-skilled jobs.
Introduction of the new status will effectively lift the ban on foreign simple labor. People who qualify for the status will have to earn sufficient scores on skill tests to be given by each sector as well as Japanese-language proficiency exams, but those who have spent at least three years in the technical internship program will be spared those exams. The status will allow them to work and stay in Japan up to five years. If those who took part in the technical internship program for the maximum five years go on to obtain the new status, they will be allowed to work and stay up to 10 years.
The government reportedly expects to invite hundreds of thousands more foreign workers in the coming years under the program to make up for the domestic manpower shortage in the rapidly aging and declining population. But that will require developing an environment in which the foreign workers will be able to work and live in this country under secure conditions. Efforts toward that will include ensuring their rights as workers and providing adequate working conditions.
The Technical Intern Training Program was introduced in 1993 as a measure for Japan to support developing economies by accepting trainees from those countries, who would bring home the skills they learn while working at businesses and farms in Japan. But the program has in fact been used to supply cheap labor to domestic companies, and has expanded in recent years in response to growing calls from sectors struggling to fill their manpower needs. The maximum duration of the trainees’ stay under the program has been extended from three to five years, while nursing care was added to the jobs that the trainees can take to address the acute labor shortage in that sector.
Abuse of the technical trainees has been reported in large numbers, even though these people are covered by the Labor Standards Law and the nation’s legal minimum wages. According to the labor ministry, supervision by labor inspection offices of nearly 6,000 businesses that hired technical trainees last year showed that roughly 70 percent of the firms had violated labor rules, including unpaid wages, illegal overtime and disregarding safety regulations. It has been learned that more than 20 trainees died in work-related accidents in the three years to fiscal 2016.
Steps must be taken to ensure that such abuse — be it of the technical trainees or the workers who come here under the new status — be stamped out. This is the minimum Japan must do to make it an attractive destination for foreign workers. This country is far from the only one that hopes to fill its domestic manpower shortage by inviting more workers from abroad.