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Japan's plan to allow more foreign workers sparks concerns

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Members of the far-right Japan First party staging a protest against immigration while activists accusing them of racism and hate speech hold a counter-demonstration in Yokohama last month.

Yokohama

AS THE United States and Europe take steps to keep more people out, Japan is cautiously moving to let more people in.

This is a country that has long sought to defend its culture and its ethnic homogeneity by discouraging immigrants. Now, with its population continuing to shrink and age, and its labour force dwindling, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is thinking the previously unthinkable.

This month, his government introduced a bill that aims to bring in hundreds of thousands of "semi-skilled" foreign workers in the years ahead, opening Japan's doors like never before.

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He is careful to stress that this is not "immigration" because these workers are not supposed to stay indefinitely, but it is still a shift that is being described as a watershed moment in the country's modern history.

Critics said that the plan is ill-thought-out - an immigration policy by stealth that will cause problems down the line.

"This is the biggest turning point in postwar Japan," Akira Nagatsuma of the opposition centre-left Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan told parliament, calling the government's proposal "irresponsible" and "half-baked".

"I am not saying no to foreign workers," he said. But he added that there needs to be rigorous planning and a meaningful debate on how to integrate foreigners into Japanese society.

What is not up for debate is the urgency of the situation. Birthrates are falling across the developed world, and populations are ageing, but nowhere is this reality hitting harder than in Japan.

Its population is expected to drop from about 127 million to just 88 million by 2065. People over 65 already account for 28 per cent of the population, and 500 schools close every year due to a lack of students.

Letting in more people may be the only way to reverse the slide to stagnation and decline, experts said. The problem is what happens then.

"If depopulation continues, people will come to Japan somehow," said Toshihiro Menju, managing director of the Japan Center for International Exchange. "We need an immigration policy to prevent an immigration problem."

Mr Abe's government is conservative, but it is also closely entwined with the business community, and the message that it hears from every quarter - shipbuilding and construction, agriculture and fishing, eldercare establishments and convenience store owners - is ever more insistent: We need more workers.

While the highly skilled have always been welcome, Mr Abe wants to allow in 345,000 semi-skilled workers by 2024, letting them come for a maximum of five years in about a dozen industries, including agriculture and construction. If they pass some still-unspecified tests at the end of that period, they could be allowed to stay for five more years, and even bring relatives.

Previous efforts to ease Japan's labour shortage have had mixed results. Mr Abe initially tried to attract more women and seniors back into the workforce, and also sought to boost fertility rates, but those efforts could not overcome overwhelming demographic trends.

In the late 1980s, Japan opened its doors to the descendants of ethnic Japanese who had emigrated at the beginning of the century, and hundreds of thousands came from Latin America, especially Brazil and Peru.

But even though they looked Japanese, many barely spoke the language and many failed to integrate. In 2009, after the global financial crisis, Japan started offering them money to return home.

Workers of different ethnicities also came - but under much more restrictive policies.

The main vehicle was the Technical Intern Training Programme, or TITP, introduced in 1993, under which workers from other Asian countries were supposed to be given training for three to five years before returning home.

"It is a sham, pretty much just a way of importing cheap labour from overseas," said lawyer Yoshihito Kawakami, adding that workers often do not receive any real training.

The main problem, he said, is that, as trainees, their visas are conditional on not changing employers. If they complain, they face losing their jobs and being deported.

Some 270,000 foreigners, many from Vietnam, China, the Philippines and Myanmar, work in Japan under TITP. Yet, because of the abuses inherent in the system, about 4,300 absconded from the programme in the past six months alone, with many going underground as undocumented workers.

A similar number of foreign workers are here ostensibly as language students, officially allowed to work 28 hours a week but in practice often putting in longer hours in the country's ubiquitous 24-hour convenience stores.

If Mr Abe's bill passes, some foreign workers will bring relatives and some may stay long enough to gain permanent residency, as many of the arrivals from Brazil and Peru have done.

It could represent a sea change for a country where few people speak foreign languages or have much contact with foreigners.

Japan is home to 2.6 million foreigners, about 2 per cent of the population, but based on current trends, that number could rise to 12 per cent in 50 years, said Makoto Kato, who analyses the economics of immigration for Mitsubishi UFJ Research and Consulting. That is approximately the ratio in Germany.

The problem is that Japan's unwillingness to admit that it is accepting immigrants means that no government funds are allocated for integration efforts, and there is no law against hate speech or discrimination against foreigners, Mr Kato and other experts said. WP