Gov’t OKs permanent foreign worker bill in major policy shift

02, Nov. 2018

TOKYO, Kyodo - The government on Friday approved a bill enabling manual workers from abroad to stay in Japan permanently in a major shift in its policy of resisting immigration.

Facing deepening labor shortages in such sectors as nursing, construction and farming, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration aims to pass the bill to revise the immigration law in the ongoing extraordinary Diet session through Dec. 10, with an eye to introducing the new program from April next year.

The hastily prepared bill has drawn objections from both ruling and opposition lawmakers who question its lack of details such as how many would be accepted and which jobs would be made available to them.

Justice Minister Takashi Yamashita, who oversees the issue, said in Thursday’s lower house committee the government is not considering setting an upper limit on the number of foreign workers.

The government is considering accepting foreign workers in 14 sectors but does not plan to specify them in the bill.

The Abe administration is apparently responding to demands from industry groups, hoping to get the bill passed in time for the unified local elections in spring next year and the upper house election in summer.

"A policy that could appeal to voters in local communities, which are in dire need of workers, is indispensable" to win the elections, a source in the prime minister’s office has said.

Japan has accepted highly skilled professionals, such as professors and doctors, and permitted a limited number of refugees.

Under the envisioned legislation, the government seeks to introduce two types of resident status for workers, who must have Japanese-language proficiency.

The first status, valid for up to five years, will be given to those who have adequate knowledge and experience in a specific field. They will not be allowed to bring their family members to Japan.

The second type will be for those with higher-level work and Japanese-language skills. The government will not set a limit on how many times this status can be renewed, effectively allowing holders of such visas to stay in Japan permanently. They will be able to bring in their family members.

Those who have qualified for the first type of resident status will be able to switch to the second category.

While the administration says the new foreign worker program does not signal a change in the country’s immigration policy, Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party could face a backlash from its conservative supporters.

Abe said in a parliament session earlier this week the bill is for strictly addressing the serious labor crunch and that the number of workers allowed will be restricted.

Japan, with a population of about 126 million, has already been dependent on foreign workers as a result of its rapidly aging society and low birth rate.

The number of foreign workers in Japan hit a record 1.28 million as of October, doubling from 680,000 in 2012, according to the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry, with Chinese making up the largest portion of around 370,000 followed by Vietnamese and Filipinos.

In addition to highly skilled professionals, the figure includes those engaged in manual work under a government-sponsored technical training program, which critics describe as a way to import cheap labor. Students with proper permits can work part-time.

The government is considering setting up a new agency under the Justice Ministry to deal with matters related to foreign workers.

Abe has pledged to devise measures to support the lives of workers moving to Japan by offering Japanese language education, helping them secure places to live and providing adequate social security among other steps.

The prime minister also promised to ensure that salaries for them will be equal to those for Japanese workers in his Diet policy speech. (Kyodo)