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Friday, June 2, 2006

New round of entertainer visa changes — help or hindrance?

Staff writer

The government introduced stricter rules Thursday for businesses that employ foreign workers on "entertainer" visas, a large segment of whom are hostesses working in bars, saying it will curb human-trafficking, but employers and labor advocates are skeptical.

News photo
Kinshicho in Sumida Ward is one of the few parts of Tokyo still boasting several pubs staffed by Filipinos.

Critics of the Immigration Bureau's changes say they are unlikely to solve the country's human-trafficking problem and will instead only deal a severe blow to legitimate businesses.

Some also say parties that want to bring mainly women into Japan, and those who want to come because of the money they can earn here that is a vital lifeline to families back home, will only sidestep the new rules, such as by entering into sham marriages with Japanese.

The regulation changes target hostess clubs and businesses that offer sexual services that bring women here — either willingly or unwillingly — under the guise of employing them as "entertainers." Many such premises are yakuza-run.

People convicted of crimes involving illegal foreign workers are at present prohibited from being involved in a so-called entertainment business for five years from their conviction date.

It also bars anyone who has been a member of an underworld syndicate from managing any kind of entertainment business for five years after they leave the mob.

It requires employers to clearly stipulate in work contracts with foreigners employed as entertainers that wages must be no less than 200,000 yen per month.

"The latest revision could give the final blow to Filipino (hostess) pubs operating in Japan," reckoned Shoji Anai, founder of the Japan Philippines Overseas Foreign Workers Cooperative Association and Foundation (JPOC).

It means there will be much fewer hostesses in the industry, Anai said, noting the shortage was "already becoming a serious problem in Tokyo and Nagoya areas."

These are the second set of changes the government has made to the entertainer visa process since the U.S. State Department published a report in June 2004 that criticized Japan for not doing enough to stop human-trafficking.

The report said the number of entertainer visas issued by Japan was extremely high compared with other countries and the visas are "often used by traffickers to bring victims" into the country.

The report pushed the government into coming up with a plan to combat human-trafficking, leading to the March 2005 introduction by the Immigration Bureau of stricter criteria for entertainer visas.

Before the change, visa applicants only had to present a so-called entertainer's certificate issued by their home country. Now applicants must show they have studied a performing art, including singing or dancing, for two years at an educational institution, plus have two years of work experience in the entertainment industry.

The new requirements have witnessed a sharp drop in entertainer visas issued, to 99,342 in 2005 from 134,879 the previous year. The number of Filipinos issued visas fell to 47,765 from 85,438 in 2004.

One Filipino manager of a supper club in Tokyo said the visa changes have had a large impact on businesses that hire foreigners — either as legitimate entertainers or women working as hostesses or in the sex trade.

The shortage of Filipino entertainers has driven up salaries, making it more difficult for businesses that hire them to stay open, said the manager, a one-time hostess who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The latest revision will make it "very, very hard to find Filipino entertainers to hire," she said. "As a manager, I can't support this change."

Miho Maeda of Kafin, a volunteer-based advocacy group for Filipino workers, said changing immigration rules is not an effective way to stop illegal migrants.

"Many of the Filipino workers need to send money to their home country," Maeda said. They will "resort to any measure to stay in Japan."

The Philippine economy relies heavily on remittances from overseas. Those from Japan rose to $356 million in 2005 from $308 million the previous year, according to the statistics by the Central Bank of the Philippines — despite the entertainer visa crackdown.

Some people fear the changes will just bring a new set of problems.

One major concern is that more women who want to work here as hostesses will marry Japanese men on paper to get into the country, JPOC's Anai said.

Roughly half of the supper club manager's team of 15 Filipino singers and dancers have permanent visas through marriages to Japanese.

The government has more difficulty finding out about women who are abused by their employers if they have entered Japan by the paper marriage route instead of being granted an entertainer visa, according to Anai.

Maeda also said she was concerned by the growing number of reports her center was receiving of domestic violence perpetrated on Philippine women by their Japanese husbands.

As long as there were people here willing to pay for hostesses and sexual services, groups would find ways to bring women into the country, she said.

"The problem isn't at the borders. Its inside the country," Maeda said.

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