Editorials

Slow start for new work visa scheme

The number of people from overseas obtaining a new visa status created in April to open the doors wider to foreign workers has fallen far short of expectations. The government anticipated up to 47,500 workers from abroad in the first year of the program designed to address the severe domestic manpower shortage, but the number of people receiving the new visa so far is only 2 to 3 percent of the expected figure.

The situation is attributed partly to delays in holding the tests for Japanese language and job skills that are required for those applying for the status. This was due to a lack of time to prepare for the system, which was hastily introduced following an amendment to the immigration control law a year ago. Interest in the new system among manpower-scarce employers is also said to remain sluggish because the government’s Technical Intern Training Program — which effectively serves as a source of cheap foreign labor — has been kept intact despite widespread abuse of trainees, including illegally low or unpaid wages. To streamline and improve the system for inviting people from overseas to work in this country, the intern program should either be overhauled and limited to its stated purpose or scrapped.

The new visa status for foreign workers represented a major turnaround in Japan’s immigration policy, which had officially welcomed only highly skilled professional workers from abroad, to accept foreign workers in simple labor positions in 14 industrial sectors as an increasingly severe labor shortage confronts the nation with its rapidly aging and shrinking population. The government anticipates an inflow of up to 345,000 foreign workers in the first five years of the program.

Those who have passed the language and skills tests in each sector can work up to five years in Japan, while workers who cleared the tests for higher skills will be able to renew their visas and bring their families to this country. Meanwhile, people who have completed at least three years as technical interns can get the new visa without taking the tests.

Since the new system was launched just a few months after the amendment to the immigration law, many of the sectors seeking to accept the foreign workers had little time to prepare to hold the tests. As of the end of November, the exams had reportedly been held in only eight of the 14 sectors, and it is taking time to process paperwork from the applicants. Arrangements with countries sending workers to Japan are also lagging behind schedule.

The number of foreign workers in Japan reached a record 1.46 million as of October last year and they are an increasingly indispensable presence in the labor force. But among them, people who supposedly did not come here for a job — foreign students and participants in the technical intern program, which is intended to instill job skills in interns who will then take them back to their home countries — make up a large portion.

Even as the number of people obtaining the new visa status has fallen short of expectations, participants in the technical intern program have continued to increase — by nearly 40,000 in the first six months of the year to 370,000. About 90,000 of the technical interns are said to be eligible for transition to the new visa status this year, and the government initially anticipated that those interns would account for a large part of the people obtaining the new visa. However, less than a thousand interns are reported to have applied so far.

Technical interns are required to work for the employers specified in their training plans — and are therefore not allowed to change jobs. On the other hand, foreign workers who obtain the new visa status can change jobs, and their employers are obliged to ensure that they are given at least the same working conditions as their Japanese colleagues. There has been concern that the workers might concentrate in or migrate to urban areas that offer higher paying jobs. Given these differences, many employers are said to prefer using technical interns over workers in the new visa program. There are reports that businesses that hire the interns are hesitant to let them apply for the new status.

Abuse of technical interns by their employers, such as illegally low or unpaid wages, illegal overtime and breaches of safety regulations, have been widely reported even though the interns are covered by the nation’s labor rules. Despite efforts to enhance protection of the interns and tighten surveillance of employers, the interns’ conditions have not significantly improved, as illustrated by the “disappearance” of as many as 9,000 from their workplaces last year alone.

Given the introduction of the new visa system for foreign workers, the technical intern program, which effectively serves as a source of cheap foreign labor, should be abolished. Improving the environment for accepting foreign workers is a must for Japan as it competes with other countries to invite qualified labor from overseas. The government needs to explore what it can do to make Japan an attractive choice for foreign workers.