Japan approves economic plan to allow more foreign workers

Officials insist the plan is not a scheme to acquire cheap labour or a change to Tokyo’s immigration policy

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 16 June, 2018, 6:46pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 16 June, 2018, 9:29pm

Japan’s cabinet on Friday adopted an economic plan that would allow more foreign workers as the rapidly ageing country tries to make up for its declining workforce.

Under the plan, visa requirements would be relaxed in sectors facing severe labour shortages such as nursing, agriculture, construction and transport – new categories it would start accepting in addition to highly-skilled professionals.

The workers would only be allowed to stay in the country for up to five years as visitors, not as immigrants. They would not be allowed to be accompanied by family members – a measure that would encourage them to leave Japan when their visas expire and not become part of Japanese society. Japan also sets high standards for language skills and cultural understanding.

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Still, the decision underscores Japan’s need to fill its labour shortage, forcing it to put aside its reluctance to accept outsiders.

“As we have faced a severe labour shortage at small and medium-size companies, we need to allow more foreign workers with certain levels of expertise and skills, not just those with highly specialised skills that we have accepted,” said economic and fiscal policy minister Toshimitsu Motegi. “We need people who can start immediately.”

The basic economic plan for 2018 needs parliamentary approval before it can take effect.

Motegi said the plan is not a scheme to acquire cheap labour or a change to Japan’s immigration policy.

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The number of foreign workers in Japan nearly doubled over the past five years to 1.28 million last year. The fastest growing group is Vietnamese, whose population grew by 40 per cent from a year earlier, many of them doing construction and nursing care jobs.

Officially, Japan only grants visas to highly-skilled technical professionals, but small companies often take advantage of visa loopholes for foreign students and others on technical internship programmes for training, putting them to work in factories and other low-skilled jobs.

Human rights groups and business lobbies have urged the government to expand work visas so that foreign workers can work legally and under improved conditions.