The amended immigration control law, enacted last December to open the door wider to workers from overseas to fill the domestic manpower shortage, takes effect in April. But with less than two months to go before the new program starts, the implementation of measures to provide various support for foreign workers, such as multilingual information on living in Japanese society, or concrete steps to ensure they have adequate working conditions and to prevent their concentration in big urban areas, remains slow. These measures are essential to introduce the program, in which the government expects to accept up to 345,000 workers in its first five years. The government needs to accelerate its efforts to take the necessary steps to prepare for welcoming the foreign workers.

In a major turnaround in the government’s immigration policy, the amended law creates new visa statuses for workers who will fill simple labor positions in 14 designated sectors that are facing a manpower shortage. To help accept the workers in large numbers as members of the local communities in which they’ll work, the government plans to set up about 100 centers in prefectures and municipalities across Japan that offer information and counseling about local life in 10 languages, such as English, Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese. How and when such centers will be launched, however, remains up in the air.

While the state intends to provide fiscal assistance for the local governments that run the centers, it is unclear, for example, whether all the relevant municipalities will be able to secure the necessary manpower, including interpreters who would answer workers’ questions in multiple languages on a wide range of issues such as medical services.

As the new system kicks in, concern remains widespread that foreign workers might concentrate in big urban areas, which offer more better-paying jobs, leaving the serious manpower shortage in rural areas unaddressed. The government has pledged that it will take measures to this outcome, and explains that it may urge businesses in big metropolitan areas to refrain from hiring such workers if too many of them are already employed in those areas. But it remains to be seen how effective these government requests will be to change the flow of workers — or whether the workers, who will have the freedom to change jobs under certain conditions, can be stopped from moving to areas that offer higher wages.

A group of ruling Liberal Democratic Party lawmakers reportedly plans to explore a legislative step to introduce a uniform legal minimum wage nationwide — instead of the current ones that are set in each prefecture to reflect differences in local costs of living and businesses’ capacity to pay workers — to prevent a possible flow of the workers to large urban areas. However, the gap in minimum hourly wages between Tokyo, which offers the highest wage among the 47 prefectures, and Hokkaido, which has the lowest, is as wide as ¥200 an hour.

The government says it will oblige businesses that hire workers under the new program to offer them at least the same level of wages as their Japanese employees. In a recent survey of prefectural and municipal governments by Kyodo News, however, roughly half the respondents said they are concerned that local businesses may not be able to ensure the same wages for foreign workers as their Japanese counterparts. Some cited difficulties in the financial conditions of the local companies, while others said it’s difficult because the businesses turn to foreign workers to save on manpower expenses.

The number of foreigners who work in Japan hit a record 1.46 million as of last October — a 14 percent increase from a year earlier and triple the number a decade ago. The sharpest increase is the number of participants in the Technical Intern Training Program from developing countries, who are supposed to learn job skills here and take them home. But the program has in fact been deemed a cover for supplying cheap labor to sectors that find it tough to secure domestic manpower. It’s been found that many of the interns have been paid wages below legal minimum levels and have suffered labor abuse such as unpaid wages. The new program’s rule ensuring foreign workers are paid the same wages as their Japanese counterparts needs to be enforced.

The government has also promised to eliminate the role of malicious brokers — who exact large broker fees from trainees before they come to Japan, leaving many of them heavily indebted — in the employment of foreign workers under the new program. It reportedly plans to tighten controls on such brokers by concluding bilateral agreements with countries from which many of the workers are expected to arrive. Such efforts also need to be accelerated.

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