The proposed amendment to the immigration control law marks a major turnaround in the government’s official policy, which has so far prohibited foreign workers from engaging in manual labor in this country. Despite the policy, Japan has increasingly relied on people from overseas — technical training interns and foreign students, who are officially not coming to Japan to work — to cover a severe domestic manpower shortage in manual labor. The amendment, submitted last week to the Diet, is a step forward in that the nation is finally coming to grips with the need to accept more foreign workers to make up for the labor supply shortage caused by its rapidly aging and shrinking population. Now the challenge is to take steps to create an attractive environment that will encourage foreigner to choose Japan as a work destination.
Behind the policy turnaround is the fact that Japan’s economy can no longer be sustained without foreign workers. With the birthrate at nearly an all-time low, the nation’s productive-age population (from 15 to 64) has declined by 13 percent from the peak in 1995 to 75.96 million last year — and is forecast to fall below 70 million by 2030 and 60 million in 2040. Although more women and elderly people are joining the labor force, a manpower shortage is growing increasingly acute in many sectors as the economy continues to pick up.
The number of foreign workers in Japan has rapidly increased — reaching a record 1.27 million at the end of October last year, nearly double the level five years earlier. One out of 50 people with jobs were foreigners — with the ratio rising much higher in sectors where the manpower shortage is serious, such as manufacturing, and bars and restaurants. But despite the economy’s growing dependence on foreign workers, those with work visas number only about 230,000, or less than 20 percent of the total. While the government has sought to invite more workers with professional skills and expertise, people officially coming to Japan for purposes other than working — foreign students studying at schools in Japan and participants in the Technical Intern Training Program — account for roughly 250,000 each of the total.
The technical intern program, launched in 1993, was meant to provide job training for interns from developing countries as they work at plants and farms in Japan and thus contribute to the economic development of their home countries as they return home with the skills acquired here. But the program has been criticized effectively as a cover for supplying low-cost labor to business sectors that find it increasingly difficult to secure domestic manpower, with large numbers of cases of labor abuse of the trainees such as unpaid wages and illegal overtime being reported by authorities. The program has indeed been expanded over the years in response to calls from businesses facing a labor shortage.
The proposed revision of the immigration control law is a big policy change in that it creates two new residence statuses for foreign workers to address the manpower shortage. The first category would be renewable for up to five years and would require applicants to have a certain level of skill and experience in their fields. Workers in this category would in principle not be allowed to bring family members into the country. The second category would be renewable indefinitely for workers with valid employment contracts. This category would require a higher skill level than the first category and would allow workers to bring their spouses and children. People who have completed at least three years of the technical intern program would qualify for the first category status without extra tests.
The government repeatedly denies that this is immigration policy — and emphasizes that the proposed measure is intended to respond to an “extremely serious manpower shortage” in yet unspecified sectors. Still, it says it has no plan to put a ceiling on the number of people to be accepted under the new program. The government reportedly expects to accept some 40,000 foreign workers in the first year of the program, which would take effect next April if the amendment is enacted during the current Diet session.
It’s unclear how many foreign workers will come to Japan to work under the new program — though it was reported earlier that the government expects more than 500,000 in several years. Competition is said to be intensifying among Asian economies — particularly those facing demographic challenges similar to Japan — to attract good workers. For Japan to be chosen by foreign workers, the nation needs to prepare a good environment in which they can live and work. Ensuring equal levels of wages and social security as their Japanese counterparts will be the minimum necessity, and various measures to support their life in this country, including language aid, will be needed. Much work remains to be done.