Ja­pan ap­proves bill for more for­eign work­ers

Bangkok Post - - ASIA -

>> TOKYO: Ja­panese law­mak­ers early yes­ter­day ap­proved gov­ern­ment-pro­posed leg­is­la­tion al­low­ing hun­dreds of thou­sands of for­eign labour­ers 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 short­handed 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 labour­ers is a last re­sort af­ter Mr Abe’s deeply con­ser­va­tive gov­ern­ment tried to meet labour 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 age­ing,’’ said Toshi­hiro Menju, an ex­pert on for­eign labour 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.

Mr 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 pro­gramme in 2016 and worked at a gar­ment fac­tory in Tochigi, north of Tokyo. She said she had to bor­row US$4,000 (131,000 baht) 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.

The sec­ond cat­e­gory, those with higher skills, Ja­panese lan­guage and cul­tural un­der­stand­ing, would be al­lowed to bring their fam­i­lies and ap­ply for cit­i­zen­ship af­ter liv­ing in Ja­pan for 10 years if they com­mit no crimes.

“Cre­at­ing new visa sta­tuses to ac­com­mo­date for­eign hu­man re­sources is our ur­gent task as we face se­ri­ous labour short­ages, es­pe­cially at small and medium-size com­pa­nies,’’ Chief Cabi­net Sec­re­tary Yoshi­hide Suga said on Fri­day.

But de­tails in­clud­ing a new im­mi­gra­tion agency, com­pe­tency tests for ap­pli­cants and ways to elim­i­nate abu­sive work­ing con­di­tions still need to be de­cided.

Many Ja­panese un­der­stand the need to solve labour short­ages. In­dus­try groups have urged the gov­ern­ment to ex­pand the work visa pro­gram so they can legally hire more for­eign work­ers.

But Mr Abe’s tra­di­tional political base and op­po­si­tion groups op­pose the change — for dif­fer­ent rea­sons.

Mr Abe has de­nied that Ja­pan is open­ing the door to im­mi­grants. His right-wing sup­port­ers view Ja­pan as a ho­moge­nous so­ci­ety and want to keep out out­siders, es­pe­cially those from other Asian coun­tries. They cite con­cerns over risks of more crime.

Hu­man rights ac­tivists and lawyers have crit­i­cised the leg­is­la­tion, say­ing it has in­suf­fi­cient pro­tec­tions.

TENSE SIGN­ING: Ja­pan’s op­po­si­tion par­ties’ members try to stop Ju­di­cial Af­fairs Com­mit­tee Chair­man Shinichi Yokoyama, bot­tom cen­tre, from mov­ing to hold a vote for a bill to re­vise an im­mi­gra­tion con­trol law.

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