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Thursday, June 7, 2007

Competing foreign-worker plans face off

Justice chief's proposal to open doors, briefly, for all sectors causes stir


Staff writer

OSAKA — If the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry, the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, and the Japan Business Federation (Nippon Keidanren) have their way, it's possible you'll see this help-wanted ad in your English-language newspaper:

"Seeking highly trained foreign engineers and technicians to work in Japan. Successful candidates must agree to first study Japanese in their home country through a Japanese-government funded program and then pass a Japanese-government approved language proficiency examination to receive a work visa. Visa may lead to permanent residency, depending on job performance, language ability and personality, which will be evaluated by the Japanese government and their employer."

On the other hand, if a recent proposal put forward by Justice Minister Jinen Nagase were to become law, it's possible the ad would be written as follows:

"Seeking foreigners to work in Japan on a temporary basis (maximum three years) for all jobs and industries. All are welcome to apply, and no prior experience or ability in Japanese necessary. Successful applicants will be guaranteed a fair wage. However, visa will be good for only three years and will not be renewed under any circumstances."

With Japan's population expected to fall from the current 127 million to 100 million by 2050, and with slightly more than one-third of the population expected to be over 65 by then, government officials and private industries are intensifying their efforts to propose policies to make up for the predicated labor shortage by bringing in foreign workers.

Three separate proposals were announced last month. Two were METI and health ministry plans for restructuring the foreign trainee system, which has drawn harsh criticism from rights groups, lawyers and others because of the many cases in which trainees are abused, underpaid, not paid at all or exploited merely as cheap labor by small companies.

Under the current system, trainees are allowed into Japan for three years. They study the Japanese language and society in a classroom during the first year and spend the last two years in on-the-job training.

The health ministry proposes bringing in foreigners for a total of three years, all of which would be on-the-job training, with a two-year extension possible after they first return to their home country.

Three days after that proposal was announced, METI released a report calling for keeping the current trainee system, but reforming it so trainees could return to Japan, like the health ministry proposal, for an extra two years under certain conditions.

Japan does not have a guest worker system that allows unskilled or semi-skilled foreigners to come in. The ministries, as well as many lawmakers, business leaders and local governments, fear a large influx of unskilled foreign workers would take jobs from Japanese, creating social unrest. This is precisely why Nagase's proposal has created such a stir.

The justice minister envisions a wide variety of foreign workers, not just skilled workers in METI-approved sectors, working here for up to three years. They would not be allowed to renew their visa, and they would not be given priority for permanent residency, which is what some in METI and Keidanren have proposed.

It is believed Nagase seeks a more acute need for unskilled or semi-skilled labor, particularly rural and in the services industry.

"The justice minister's proposal recognizes that a broad range of foreign laborers are needed. It brings foreigners in through the front door to meet Japan's coming labor demand in all sectors, whereas the METI and the health ministry proposals target technical trainees for specific sectors only, which will result in a large influx of illegal foreign labor through the side door for the other sectors," said Michitsune Kusaka of Rights of Immigrants Network Kansai, a nongovernmental organization.

However, both Kusaka and Hidenori Sakanaka, director of the NGO Japan Immigration Policy Institute and former head of the Tokyo Immigration Bureau, criticize the proposed three-year time limit.

"Putting a three-year limit on a foreign worker's stay in Japan does not give the company doing the hiring any incentive to take the time to train them for specialized work. Of course, there is also the question of how many skilled workers would want to come to Japan if they are forced to leave after three years," Sakanaka said.

While the three proposals are getting a lot of attention among bureaucrats in Tokyo's Nagata-cho district and senior business leaders, the issue of what to do about foreign laborers is not expected to addressed by politicians in the Upper House election in July.

Hiroshi Inoue, a Keidanren official who helped draft its own policy on foreign laborers, which is similar to the METI proposal, said the issue of foreign workers remains off the radar for most Diet members.

"Local politicians in areas of Japan with lots of foreign laborers, especially in the Chubu region, have to think about policies for foreign laborers. But the issue is not something Diet members concern themselves with," he said.

"The pension issue and revising the Constitution will be the focus of the Upper House election. Seriously debating proposals about more foreign laborers is not something Diet members are ready to do, although the three proposals announced in May are getting a lot of attention among bureaucrats," Sakanaka said.



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