Commentary / Japan

The impact of accepting unskilled foreign labor

by Taku Tamura

Contributing Writer

An amendment to the immigration control law with the aim of accepting more foreign workers is being discussed in the Diet. The revision has two pillars — the creation of new visa categories for foreign workers with certain skills and the establishment of an immigration control agency as an extra-ministerial bureau of the Justice Ministry. The Abe administration hopes to get the amendment enacted during the current Diet session and enforce it next April.

The creation of the new categories is significant in that it will fill a missing piece in the current visa status framework. Two types of residence status will be created. The first type is for foreigners to engage in work that requires a reasonable level of knowledge or experience in the field. The second type is for foreign workers to be engaged in work that requires higher-level skills. Those given the second status type will be allowed to bring their spouses and children along to this country.

Japan has accepted large numbers of unskilled workers from overseas as trainees under the Technical Intern Training Program. In reality, the program has served as a scheme to supply foreign workers to industries suffering from manpower shortage. Behind this distortion is the discrepancy between the real motive and stated purpose of the program.

The program’s original purpose was for Japanese companies to train in Japan employees locally hired by their overseas subsidiaries. But as the labor shortage among small and medium-size businesses became conspicuous, the program came to be used also as a tool to recruit unskilled workers from abroad.

To deflect charges that it will deprive Japanese workers of job opportunities, the foreign workers were treated as “trainees,” not employed for work. Because their status was as trainees, some employers started to pay them below the legal minimum wage or get them to work excessively long hours.

There is criticism inside Japan and abroad that the program constitutes human trafficking. But it must be emphasized that not all the trainees are paid illegal wages or subjected to long working hours. The program has been in place to this day because many employers offered enough wages for trainees to send money to their families back home.

The creation of a visa status for foreign workers with certain skills has the potential of normalizing the situation surrounding the foreign trainees. Employers will be required to pay the same level of wages to the foreign workers their Japanese counterparts receive. Under the technical training program, the trainees were routed to supervising umbrella organizations before starting work at small or medium-size companies. But since these organizations’ supervisory ability is sometimes weak, some dismiss their relevance. Others have pointed to the existence of brokers who exploit the trainees.

Workers coming to Japan under the new program, in principle, will be directly employed by the companies or organizations they work for. The whole society needs to keep watch over their working environment in order to control the entire process from their arrival in Japan, to working here and returning to their home countries so as to optimize the cost.

The proposed amendment has directed people’s attention to issues of foreign workers. But something is wrong with arguments in the mass media that imply that only the inflow of simple foreign labor will affect Japan’s future. The image that the new program will increase the number of non-Japanese with permanent residency status despite the lack of consensus as to what constitutes immigration is also wrong. Most of the guest workers will return home some day. While the increased presence of non-Japanese in this country is conspicuous, the issue of unskilled foreign workers is only a part of the picture. Similarly important is the sharp increase in the number of inbound tourists, which reached a record 28.69 million last year. We need to look at the whole picture.

As of the end of 2017, foreigners with medium- or long-term residency numbered 2.563 million — consisting of 1.435 million with permanent residency, including some 330,000 with special permanent residency because they are nationals of countries and territories that were formerly under Japan’s colonial rule, and 1.128 million who are either employees, trainees or students. It would be a jump in logic to look down on unskilled labor but think that accepting more non-Japanese to take on those jobs will negatively impact the nation’s safety and culture.

The system will lack durability unless the needs of employers, local communities and non-Japanese are balanced. The same can be said about other types of visa status. While Japan wants to overcome its manpower shortage, the primary purpose of most of the visiting foreign workers is earning money on the basis of the economic gap between Japan and their home countries. As other Asian economies get richer, it is undeniable that Japan’s attractiveness will drop in relative terms. That is why speed is important.

There is a risk that the stated purpose of the new program will distort the system. The government’s basic policy says that Japan will start accepting work-ready non-Japanese with a certain level of expertise and skill. Although it’s clear to everyone that the program aims to invite simple foreign labor, the government insists that it is not the case.

To uphold this position, pre-entry industry-by-industry tests may be institutionalized to ascertain the applicants’ level of expertise or skill. Depending on the design of what industries would be covered by the program, the scope of work allowed for the foreign laborers and their chances of job changes could be narrowed. An inequitable situation may arise depending on the situation and size of each industry, but it will be difficult for applicants to get relevant information beforehand in their home countries. Only administering a test to gauge the applicants’ communication abilities in Japanese will be of great merit for both employers and foreign workers.

Lastly, accepting foreign workers is important from the viewpoint of diversity. Living and working alongside non-Japanese, coupled with better education for English communication, will serve as the basis for more Japanese to be active in the global scene. As of the end of 2017, Chinese constituted the largest group among non-Japanese living here, followed by South Koreans, Vietnamese, Filipinos, Brazilians and Nepalese. The combined population of the countries whose nationals are among the top 20 groups of non-Japanese tops 4.5 billion — or more than 35 times Japan’s population.

Today information spreads at the speed of light through word-of-mouth communication. A good experience leads to a good reputation, creating a mood more friendly to Japan. Exactly the opposite can happen as well. I hope that the foreign workers will grow fond of Japan while they are here.

Taku Tamura is chief director and co-founder of EDAS, an association connecting people and organizations involved in employing non-Japanese workers and Japanese-language education.