Battling serious labour shortages, ageing Japan announces the sectors where it needs tens of thousands of foreign workers

  • Proposed reforms to immigration law have raised the hackles of conservatives worried about mass immigration and rising crime
  • Activists also remain unconvinced – pointing to previous piecemeal efforts that led to accusations of worker exploitation
PUBLISHED : Thursday, 15 November, 2018, 2:18am
UPDATED : Thursday, 15 November, 2018, 2:18am

The Japanese government said on Wednesday that it expects nursing care businesses to accept the largest number of foreign workers among the 14 sectors to be affected under an envisioned revision to immigration control laws.

In an estimate provided to parliament, which has just started deliberations on a bill to revise the law, the government said that it expects up to 47,550 foreign workers to enter the country in the first year of the programme, and 345,150 workers over five years.

In a major policy shift for Japan, the bill would create new visa statuses to accept blue-collar foreign workers in sectors deemed seriously short of labour, ranging from construction and farming to nursing care. The programme, which could start as early as next April, may also pave the way for them to live permanently in Japan.

By sector, the government said nursing care is expected to accept the largest number of up to 60,000 workers in the five-year period, food services up to 53,000 workers and construction about 40,000.

Farming is expected to get about 36,500, and building cleaning businesses around 37,000.

Other sectors covered by the programme are industry machinery, electronics, shipbuilding, auto maintenance, material production, airlines, lodging, fisheries, and food and beverage manufacturing.

The government announced the official estimate after being grilled by opposition parties for pushing ahead with the passage of the bill without disclosing details of the new system.

It aims to pass the bill during the ongoing extraordinary Diet session though December 10.

Although ageing Japan has long acknowledged the need to bolster its shrinking workforce, it has so far made only grudging efforts to open up its labour market, which have failed to meet its needs.

In 1990 it opened the door to Brazilians and other South Americans of Japanese descent. When that proved insufficient, it allowed businesses to hire foreign workers on a training programme which was part of a development aid package for poorer countries.

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That scheme, which also failed to meet demand, was criticised as a stealth migrant labour programme and accused of exploiting workers and providing them with few skills.

Now Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government wants to grant visas for up to five years to foreign blue-collar workers employed in industries facing chronic shortages.

Workers armed with more advanced skills and Japanese language proficiency would be able to extend their visas and bring over family members – an unprecedented relaxation of immigration rules that has sparked alarm among conservatives, including some within Abe’s own party.

But the Japanese business community says the reforms are essential, with an unemployment rate hovering around 2.5 per cent and 164 jobs going for every 100 jobseekers in October.

According to the government estimates, the country’s labour market is now short of 586,400 people and will face a shortage of about 1.45 million in five years.

Abe’s government insists the new reforms will not lead to mass immigration, adding that most workers would not seek to settle down in Japan.

There are concerns that the crime rate may rise
Tomomi Inada, Japanese politician

But his opponents – ranging from conservatives who worry foreigners will upset the social order to activists who fear worker exploitation – are unconvinced, with a heated debate underway in parliament this week.

“There are concerns that the crime rate may rise, and jobs may be taken (from Japanese workers),” said Tomomi Inada, a member of Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party, during the debate.

Despite its reputation as closed, in 2016 Japan ranked fourth among OECD countries on the inflow of foreign residents, behind only Germany, the United States and Britain.

This year, the number of foreign residents hit 2.63 million, two per cent of the population, and nearly double the figure a decade ago.

I hope the government will take responsibility and give them proper Japanese education
Shoko Takano, educator

But immigration remains a worry for many Japanese – recent polls show that slightly more than 50 per cent of voters support the new visa scheme, but support falls below 45 per cent when they are asked about allowing migrant workers to settle in Japan long-term.

Shoko Takano, 73, runs a Portuguese school for the children of Brazilians in Oizumi, a town northwest of Tokyo where some 10 per cent of the population are foreign citizens.

She worries the government has no plans to integrate new foreign workers, and points to frictions in Oizumi with Brazilian residents, including over the sorting of litter and noise pollution.

“These (problems) are created by newcomers, and they can learn if we teach them Japanese rules,” she said.

“I hope the government will take responsibility and give them proper Japanese education.”

The new measures are still treating foreigners only as labourers but not as residents
Kiyoto Tanno, immigration specialist

Others want the visa rules to be relaxed further, making it easier for workers – including those lacking Japanese language skills – to bring their families over.

Japan should treat foreigners “not just as workers but humans, who are already playing important roles in industries and local communities,” said Ippei Torii, an activist working for the rights of foreign residents.

Kiyoto Tanno, an immigration specialist at Tokyo Metropolitan University, said any restriction on bringing family members was “inhumane”.

“The new measures are still treating foreigners only as labourers but not as residents,” he said.

Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse