The government has adopted a set of plans to operate the new system of accepting blue-collar foreign workers under the amended immigration control law enacted in the last Diet session, and to provide various support for the workers coming from overseas, such as language assistance. The system, to be introduced in April, marks a major turnaround in the nation’s immigration policy that had supposedly accepted foreign workers only in jobs requiring highly professional skills (though large numbers of “technical training interns” have in fact helped fill the manpower shortage in simple labor). The anticipated number of blue-collar workers coming to Japan — up to 345,000 in the first five years, according to the government’s estimate — will require various responses to smoothly accept them in society. The measures spelled out in the plans need to be steadily and effectively implemented.

The measures range from help in daily life and employment issues, to social security and Japanese-language education. The plans call on prefectures, designated major cities as well as other municipalities that have large non-Japanese population to establish consultation centers that will provide administrative information, respond to inquiries and offer advice in multiple languages. Disaster-related information and response to emergency calls to police should be made multilingual, according to the plans, which also call for beefing up Japanese-language education for the workers. Such services are indeed essential if the workers from abroad are to be accepted as “members of society.” How local governments will promptly implement the measures by securing the manpower and budget, however, remains an open question, although the national government plans to subsidize such efforts by the roughly 100 prefectures and municipalities being called upon to act.

Past experience raises a question mark on how fast they can act. Multilingual administrative information and Japanese-language education support were also featured in the plan to promote “multicultural coexistence” compiled by the national government in 2006, which required prefectural and municipal governments to devise their own plans and guidelines. While most prefectural and major city governments had compiled their plans as of last April, only about 70 percent of smaller cities had done so, while among towns and villages the rate was a meager 10 to 20 percent.

The plans mandate that blue-collar workers from abroad, who will take up jobs in 14 sectors facing manpower shortages such as nursing care, janitorial work, manufacturing, agriculture and fishing as well as food services, will be paid wages at least equal to what their Japanese counterparts earn. This requirement is crucial given that the Technical Intern Training Program, which is supposedly meant to transfer job skills to people from developing countries as they work in plants and farms here, has effectively been used as a cover for providing cheap labor to industries and businesses that have difficulty securing domestic manpower, with many of the trainees given less than the legal minimum wage. What is also essential will be a mechanism for ensuring compliance with the rule.

Another key feature of the plans is the call on the government to take steps to prevent the incoming workers from concentrating in big urban areas and neglecting the needs of other areas struggling with the manpower shortage. However, they fail to spell out what specific steps should be taken to prevent this eventuality. And that will not be an easy task, given that the exodus of Japanese youths from rural to urban areas remains unabated. It is indeed the technical trainees who have made up for the labor shortage in the regions that have suffered from population flight.

Under the new system, the workers from overseas hired in the 14 designated sectors, after being tested on industry-specific skills as well as the Japanese language, will be able to change jobs within the same sector. Since pay levels, including the legal minimum wage, differ from prefecture to prefecture, it is possible that the newcomers will migrate to major urban areas where remuneration tends to be higher. Whether and how they can be stopped from concentrating in big cities is an unanswered question that needs to be addressed.

As the new system is introduced, the government needs to scrutinize the Technical Intern Training Program, the various problems of which were exposed once again in the Diet deliberations over the amended immigration control law. Despite attempts to reform the system, abuse of the trainees such as subjecting them to excessively long working hours and unpaid wages remains widespread. As the number of trainees has increased to account for roughly 20 percent of all foreign workers in this country, so has the number of those who “disappear” from their employers — apparently to escape the abusive conditions. The number of such trainees topped 32,000 between 2012 and 2018. It seems clear that the program needs an overhaul.

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