Japan Opens Door Wider for Foreign Workers; Tokyo Looks to Address Construction Labor Gap
The Wall Street Journal Online
4 April 2014 05:15,
TOKYO—Concerned about a shortage of construction workers for an expected building boom ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, Japan is looking to tap into a source of labor it has long regarded as off-limits—foreign workers.
But in a nation where noncitizens make up just 1.6% of the population, any moves are likely to be incremental, as the government looks to make baby steps to improve a labor shortage without opening the lid on the wider issue of immigration policy.
The government decided Friday to loosen Japan's practical training visa rules to allow foreign nationals who have acquired construction skills under the scheme to work in Japan for a maximum of three years after their training period.
The move will effectively allow unskilled foreign laborers to work in Japan's construction industry for six years in a bid to fulfill the labor shortage expected between now and the Olympics.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Friday that the government will consider how to make clear that the measure isn't a change in immigration policy.
Japan's construction industry, like its agriculture and forestry sectors, is aging at a rapid pace. After reaching a peak of 4.6 million workers in 1997, the number had decreased to about 3.4 million last year, a drop of 26%.
The government expects a shortage of 150,000 workers in total over the next five years. The shortfall also stems from two decades of the government keeping a tighter rein on public projects, thereby discouraging new entrants into the industry, as well as younger workers opting out of what is known as the dangerous, difficult, dirty sector—or "3K" sector, using the first letter of the corresponding words in Japanese.
The massive rebuilding effort in northeast Japan following the 2011 tsunami disaster is also adding to the construction labor shortfall.
The new visa rules, likely to be implemented around spring 2015, are expected to boost the sector's labor force by a total of about 70,000 foreign workers over the following five years. That figure overstates the number of actual workers, though, as it counts each year worked by a foreign construction worker, meaning the eventual number of foreign workers over the period would likely be far lower.
Government officials were eager to stress that the program is strictly a guest-worker scheme that in no way reflects a change in Japan's foreign labor policy.
"The program is designed to prevent the setting down of roots by guaranteeing that they return to their countries by keeping their stays short," an immigration official said.
The official added that under the program the families of workers will still not be allowed to accompany them throughout their time in Japan.
Construction labor union officials said the measures missed the point underlying the shortfall of workers.
"This addresses none of the structural problems in the industry that is led to the rapid decline in workers," said Masatoshi Taguchi, an official at the National Federation of Construction Workers' Unions.
Critics of the program say that expanding the practical training scheme, already fraught with labor and human rights violations over alleged exploitation of foreign laborers, is enabling the government to avoid engaging in a tough debate over how to incorporate foreigners into its aging population.
According to the Japan Center for Economic Research, there are about 136,000 technical interns engaged in on-the-job training in Japan, and over 100,000 foreign students allowed to work short hours. In reality, they have come to form the backbone of the service industry in urban areas, and agriculture, fisheries, and other labor-intensive sectors.
Use of the scheme has led to some abuse, ranging from wage withholding to inhumane working conditions. A handful of cases have ended in workers who felt they were exploited turning violent and even murderous against their employers, prompting the Japanese government to modify laws to better protect the workers' rights under the program.
"The practical training visa was created as part of Japan's technical aid to developing countries," said Naohiro Yashiro, a labor economist on the government's expert advisory panel for increasing Japan's industrial competitiveness. "Continuing this ad hoc way of scrambling together cheap labor and sending them back isn't only inefficient in the long run, but also offers no incentive for foreign workers to choose Japan over all the other industrial nations with labor shortages."
Japan was highly criticized when it introduced in 2009 a "returning home assistance" program offering one-way tickets for special status permanent residents from overseas-—mostly Brazilians—-when the global financial crisis left many of them out of work. Nearly 22,000 took up the offer.
The Japanese government began granting special resident status to descendants of Japanese overseas immigrants in 1990 to help fill the labor shortage in Japan's manufacturing sector at the height of its economic bubble. Many of them were descendants of Japanese immigrants to Brazil and their families.
Last October, the Ministry of Justice quietly lifted an unspecified re-entry prohibition on people it paid to send back, citing "recent economic and employment conditions."