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Wednesday, Jan. 5, 2011


Trade pacts one thing, immigrant labor another

Staff writer

Fourth in a series

As Japan continues to debate the merits of economic partnership accords with South Korea, China and other parts of Asia, one area of concern receiving relatively little public attention is how any final pact would cover immigrant labor.

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Prepping up: Indonesian nurses take an examination in Jakarta in March 2009 prior to coming to Japan in search of work. KYODO PHOTO

The experiences of Japan and South Korea in accepting foreign laborers are a study in contrasts, while China is primarily concerned about issues related to domestic labor. Yet this is not to say the world's most populous country doesn't have foreign laborer issues.

The exact number of foreign laborers, legal and illegal, residing in China is unknown. For years, construction workers and other laborers from Vietnam, Cambodia and Myanmar have shown up in China's booming coastal cities on short-term work arrangements. More recently, authorities have turned their attention to a large influx of Africans, especially from Nigeria, who are often in China to run their own export businesses.

China's basic law on the employment of foreigners was enacted in 1996. It requires an employer to get permission from the government to hire foreigners. The law states employers and foreign employees must conclude a labor contract that lasts no more than five years, and that the wages paid to foreign employees will not be lower than the minimum wage in whatever locality the foreigner is working.

In 2004, South Korea introduced the Employment Permit System, which was greeted with great fanfare as an East Asia first. Under the EPS, small and medium-size enterprises employing fewer than 300 workers can hire migrants from 15 approved countries, including China, Vietnam, the Philippines and Thailand.

By law, migrant workers are equal to South Korean workers, with equal labor rights, pay and benefits. As of last year, there were about 680,000 migrant workers in South Korea, mostly working in textile and electronics factories. But according to Amnesty International, there were also many illegal workers.

Japan, despite a decade of government, business, academic and media warnings that the aging population and lower birthrate mean millions of foreign workers are needed to maintain current GDP levels, has dithered, opting instead to emphasize the goal of wooing highly skilled migrant workers.

Six years after South Korea's EPS was introduced, Japan continues to debate the need for foreign workers, but there is a growing consensus outside government that only certain kinds should be accepted.

Such thinking was clearly evident in a report released in December by the Japan Forum on International Relations, an influential think tank. Signed by 87 academics, businesspeople and politicians, the report includes specific recommendations for accepting foreign immigrant labor.

"Japan should recognize that easy admission of foreign migrants would not only dilute social and cultural cohesion in the host country, but produce severe strains in terms of politics and security," the report says, noting that whereas most of the immigrants Europe takes in come from Muslim countries and can be a source of friction with Western, Christian-based societies, most prospective immigrants to Japan would be from China and the Korean Peninsula, places with shared historical ties.

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"We should nevertheless face squarely the fact that Japan has essentially no other choice but to accept (foreign immigrants)," the think tank said.

It is proposing that foreign scientists, managers and engineers in industries Japan attaches strategic importance to be greeted with open arms and granted permanent residency after five years instead of 10, and their families be given opportunities and education.

In principle, a foreigner seeking permanent residency status in Japan must live in the country for 10 years, hold a steady job and possess a bank account. An applicant would face an interview in Japanese with immigration officials to determine language ability and the reason for wanting to stay.

The rules and requirements are somewhat flexible, however, and immigration authorities have a great deal of discretion in approving or rejecting applicants.

Priority should be given to highly qualified human resources who can contribute intellectually or technically to science, technology and industries to which Japan attaches strategic importance, the think tank said.

"Jobs that require no specific skills or experiences are indispensable for the abundant stock of Japanese to re-enter the labor market, and therefore should not be fully opened to foreign workers," it says.

The paper was released amid reports of deep setbacks to government plans to accept thousands of Indonesian and Filipino nurses and caregivers under economic partnership agreements signed with the two countries.

In July, Jusuf Anwar, Indonesian ambassador to Japan, told a public forum at Kyoto University that of the 500 Indonesians who took Japan's national examinations in 2008 and 2009, only two passed and have since become certified nurses.

As of May, only one Filipino had passed the exam, even though the Philippines announced just before the EPA went into effect in 2009 that Japan might hire up to 1,000 foreign nurses by the end of 2011. In response, Tokyo has said it was open to easing the exam, especially the Japanese-language requirements.

Japan's health ministry said in 2007 that an additional 200,000 to 500,000 long-term care workers would be needed by 2014, but even the most ambitious recruiting of foreigners would probably yield only a mere fraction of the total need.

Indonesian and Philippine government officials, health care groups and human rights activists have all heavily criticized the program for bringing foreign nurses to Japan, calling it overly strict and exploitive.

In a letter to The Japan Times on Feb. 11, 2010, Emily Honma, who has worked with Filipino nurses and caregivers who came to Japan, said the EPA had led to a nightmare for many Filipino health care givers, with a net month's pay often only ¥60,000 and a nonsupportive work environment.

Hidenori Sakanaka, director general of the independent think tank Japan Immigration Policy Institute, says many Japanese are concerned that an open immigration policy for either low- or high-skilled foreign workers would mean a large influx of Chinese and South Koreans in particular, but a balanced approach could prevent many problems.

"An immigration policy that encourages people not only from Asia but from all over the world to settle in Japan should be pursued," he said at a recent news conference in Tokyo.

Some foreigners who are already here expressed mixed feelings. Zheng Shuang, a 22-year-old Chinese student at an Osaka-area technical school, said she wouldn't mind working in Japan, but she would be hesitant to immigrate.

"I think there are lots of Japanese firms that would like to hire Chinese graduates, and if the Japanese government were to make it easier, lots of Chinese would come and work here for a long time, despite the language and cultural barriers."

Zheng, however, said she herself would be hesitant to immigrate to Japan.

"It's not just about working. It's about fitting into society, and I don't think Japan is psychologically ready to embrace lots of immigrant workers from China," she said.

Statistics from the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry show there were 562,818 foreign laborers in Japan as of October 2009. This includes 249,325 Chinese, followed by 104,323 Brazilians and 48,859 Filipinos and 25,468 South Koreans. About 17,600 Chinese and 4,900 South Koreans were working in Japan as technical specialists.

Immigration experts often point to Europe's experiences with migrant workers when discussing the various problems of integrating foreigners into society. But South Korea's experience over the past six years with the EPS is also worthy of study, especially given the ethnic and cultural similarities between South Korea and Japan.

The EPS was intended to offer migrant workers greater legal protection under the South's domestic labor laws. But there have been problems. A 2008 Amnesty International report noted that although migrant, low-skilled workers can work in South Korea for three years, their contract term is valid for only one year at a time.

Amnesty's survey of workers who came to South Korea under the EPS showed more than 50 percent said their wages, working hours, provision of food and accommodations, and breaks and rest days were different from what their employers had originally promised.

But South Korea has an official immigration policy in place, unlike Japan, where unofficial debate about accepting immigrants and helping them adjust abounds, but political action eludes.

Although the Democratic Party of Japan said in 2008, when it was the main opposition force, that it favored eventually bringing in 10 million foreign laborers, its 2009 platform for the Lower House election made no mention of the issue or any possible numbers of foreign laborers in the future.

Sakanaka noted the economic crisis of the past two years has dampened enthusiasm not only in Japan but around the world for expanded immigration, while adding that the country doesn't really have a choice, given its declining population.

"The only way for Japan to survive is to become part of this Pacific economic zone. America, Canada, Australia and New Zealand are the leading immigration nations in the Pacific region, and Japan should use the opportunity presented by the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement to join these traditional immigration powers," he said.

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