The amendment to the immigration control law enacted by the Diet on Saturday morning, which formally opens Japan’s doors to foreign workers to engage in unskilled labor, left out much of the new program’s details, such as the number of workers expected in each industrial sector, specifics of the skills required of the workers who qualify for the new visa statuses, the standards of their employment contracts, as well as measures to help them settle in society, including language support. Those details will be set by the government in ordinances not subject to Diet approval before the new system is implemented next April. Even though the amendment marks a major turnaround in government policy on immigrant workers, discussions fell short of what was needed because the government and the ruling coalition rushed the bill through the Diet.

The government insisted that it can lose no time since the domestic manpower shortage is becoming increasingly serious as the population rapidly grays and declines. In fact, Japan’s economy already relies heavily on workers from overseas to the point that it can no longer do without foreign labor. Even as the government officially restricted workers from abroad to those with high professional skills, participants in the Technical Intern Training Program as well as students — whose purpose in coming to Japan is not to seek employment — have provided cheap unskilled labor and account for a major portion of the growing ranks of foreign workers.

The Diet deliberations on the immigration control law amendment once again shed light on the problems of the technical intern program, including widespread labor abuse such as excessively long working hours and unpaid wages. The program, which was launched in 1993 to transfer job skills to participants as they work in businesses and farms in this country, has been expanded over the years to cope with the growing domestic manpower shortage. As the number of the technical interns increased to roughly 258,000 last year, up sharply from 134,000 five years earlier and accounted for nearly a quarter of the foreign workforce, thousands of them have “disappeared” from their jobs each year, which testifies to their often harsh working conditions. A close look by opposition lawmakers at Justice Ministry files on those workers reportedly showed that nearly 70 percent of them were paid less than the legal minimum wage. Ministry data showed that a total of 69 interns died in the three years to 2017; the causes including accidents, illnesses and suicides.

The government said the new visa system for foreign workers and the technical intern program are “entirely different” and proceeded to push the amended immigration control law through the Diet. It emphasized that workers who come to Japan under the newly created residency statuses will be guaranteed the same rights and working conditions as their Japanese counterparts. The new program will indeed be better than continuing to accept unskilled foreign labor under the guise of the technical internship program, which is ostensibly meant to serve as economic cooperation with their home countries by teaching them job skills that they can take home.

Still, the abusive treatment of many of the trainees took place even though they are supposedly protected by Japan’s labor laws and regulations. People who have experienced at least three years in the technical internship program will automatically qualify for one of the new statuses, which requires lower levels of job skills and enable the holders to work and stay in Japan for up to five years. The government expects that former trainees will account for up to 60 percent of the people who qualify for the Category 1 visa status in its first year. It’s possible that the same employers will hire both new status workers and technical trainees. And despite all its problems, the government reportedly has no plans to overhaul or abolish the technical intern program.

The government has taken pains to deny that the new residency statuses constitute a policy of accepting immigrants. Still, it expects to accept up to 345,000 foreign workers in the first five years of the new program. For the program to succeed, measures to welcome them into society will be essential, including language education, social security programs and various support for their daily lives. Ensuring that all foreign workers get the necessary support will be a huge challenge. The government reportedly plans to take steps to exclude malicious brokers from their employment process, which is essential to ensure that the workers will not be exploited.

If the same errors are repeated as in running the technical intern program, which is under heavy international criticism, the chances of Japan being “chosen” by overseas workers will be slim as competition is said to be intensifying among countries to attract more foreign workers to cover their domestic manpower shortages.

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