Workers look at the LNG Sakura liquefied natural gas tanker berthed at Tokyo Gas Co.’s Negishi LNG terminal in Yokohama, Japan. (Photographer: Tomohiro Ohsumi/Bloomberg)  

Japan Dials Back Foreign-Worker Plan Despite Labor Shortage

(Bloomberg) -- Facing a barrage of criticism from across the political spectrum, the Abe government has settled on a guest-worker plan that will deliver fewer than a quarter of the 1.5 million people Japan needs to plug a labor shortage over the next five years.

Japan Dials Back Foreign-Worker Plan Despite Labor Shortage

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe wants to enact legislation by the end of December allowing up to 345,150 foreigners into the country over the first five years of the program to work in areas like construction and farming. The first workers could arrive in April.

The figure is significantly lower than the 500,000 floated in the local media over recent months, suggesting the government’s intent is to ease its passage through parliament and to deflect concerns that the program is both too big and too rushed.

Abe has the numbers in parliament to get it passed despite criticism of the program by opposition parties. Yet even within his Liberal Democratic Party there’s lingering suspicion from conservatives despite his repeated denials that the system amounts to allowing “immigration.” Criticism also comes from some non-profit organizations that support migrant workers but contend that preparations have been overly hasty.

Many base their criticism on an existing program for foreign “technical interns” that the U.S. State Department has cited for cases of forced labor. Officially intended to transfer technology to developing countries, the program became a means to import cheap workers for farms and garment factories.

About 260,000 “interns” are working in Japan, mostly from Vietnam and China. They make up a substantial proportion of the total 1.3 million foreign workers in the country, but thousands of them abandon their jobs each year amid poor working conditions.

Japan Dials Back Foreign-Worker Plan Despite Labor Shortage

"The gulf between the official policy and the reality, and the patchwork nature of the system have led to serious breaches of human rights," opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan lawmaker Shiori Yamao told parliament Tuesday. “This bill will leave the system intact and link it to a new one, ignoring the more serious problems that will emerge.”

The Ministry of Justice says that while some interns leave their positions because of rights abuses, most have gone off in search of higher pay in other jobs.

Yet given Japan’s aging and shrinking population, the government says the new guest-worker system is desperately needed. Business groups are also in favor of quickly bringing in more workers.

There are more vacancies than job seekers in all Japan’s 47 prefectures, while in Tokyo there are two openings for every applicant. Unemployment is close to lows not seen since 1993. Sectors allowed to recruit the workers will include elderly care, the hotel and restaurant industries, agriculture and food manufacturing.

Pay Dispute

Shiro Sasaki, secretary general of the Zentoitsu Workers Union, said the problems facing foreign workers may not change under the new system.

Among the cases Sasaki is dealing with is one involving a 36-year-old Vietnamese woman, who told Bloomberg she came to Japan in 2016 hoping to improve her sewing skills and learn about Japanese culture as an intern.

Instead, the divorced mother of two, who declined to be identified while involved in a dispute with her former employer, said she was forced to work 14 hours a day without proper overtime pay at a garment factory in the northern prefecture of Yamagata. After querying her pay she says she was fired and ordered to leave the country within days.

Public Opinion

Public opinion varies by age. A Nikkei newspaper poll published Oct. 29 found 54 percent of respondents in favor and 37 percent opposed to admitting more foreign workers. By age, 65 percent of 18-29 year-olds approved, compared with 42 percent of those over 70.

In response to those worried about immigration by stealth, the government has said workers will be divided into two types, and those categorized as lower-skilled laborers won’t be allowed to bring their families or stay more than five years.

Shigeharu Aoyama, a 66-year-old upper house LDP member, said in an interview that the government should focus on helping unemployed Japanese fill vacancies.

“I have a lot of objections, but the biggest is that in Japan, women and the middle-aged and elderly are not getting the opportunities they want to work," he said.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.