Japan OKs divisive bill allowing more foreign workers
TOKYO — Japanese lawmakers early Saturday approved government-proposed legislation allowing hundreds of thousands of foreign laborers to live and work in a country that has long resisted accepting outsiders.
The contentious legislation passed only months after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe proposed the plan despite opposition groups’demand for more thorough debate to address concerns about a drastic change of policy.
It’s seen as an unavoidable step as the country’s population of about 126 million rapidly ages and shrinks. Many short-handed industries, especially in the services sector, already rely heavily on foreign “trainees” and language students. Japan also selectively grants visas to white-collar professionals, often from the West.
Bringing in foreign laborers is a last resort after Abe’s deeply conservative government tried to meet labor shortages by encouraging more employment of women and older workers and using more robots and other automation.
“Japan has come to a point where we had to face the reality that there is serious depopulation and serious aging,” said Toshihiro Menju, an expert on foreign labor and population issues at the Japan Center for International Exchange.
“Shortages of workers are so serious ... that (allowing) immigrants is the only option the government can take,” he said.
Abe’s latest plan calls for relaxing Japan’s visa requirements in sectors facing severe labor shortages such as construction, nursing, farming, transport and tourism — new categories of jobs to be added to the current list of highly skilled professionals.
The number of foreign workers in Japan has more than doubled since 2000 to nearly 1.3 million last year, out of a working-age population of 67 million. Workers from developing Asian countries used to stay mostly behind the scenes, but not anymore. Almost all convenience stores are partly staffed by Asian workers and so are many restaurant chains.
The fastest growing group of foreign workers is Vietnamese, many of whom are employed in construction and nursing. Construction workers are particularly in demand as Japan rushes to finish building venues and other infrastructure for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
In many cases the workers are subjected to poor working conditions and other abuses.
“I had no time for a holiday . ... Even if I worked so hard I still had no money,” said Eng Pisey, 33, from Cambodia, who came to Japan on a training program in 2016 and worked at a garment factory in Tochigi, north of Tokyo. She said she had to borrow $4,000 to pay a broker to arrange her job, and ended up quitting after becoming ill from overwork.
Under the legislation, two categories of workers will be accepted beginning in April: less-skilled workers and former interns with basic Japanese competency are allowed to stay in the country for only up to five years as visitors and cannot bring in family members. That is meant to encourage them to leave when their visas expire, preventing them from settling in Japan.