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Japan

Foreign labor: Challenges await

The envisaged creation of a new visa program to accept foreign workers may help ease Japan’s labor woes, which look set to get worse in the coming years as the population ages.

But for a country known for keeping a firm grip on immigration, the challenges of opening up its labor market are manifold. Challenges ranging from social security issues to providing education and medical services are all concerns that will need to be addressed.

The program, a major shift from Japan’s traditional policy of accepting primarily highly skilled professionals in principle, comes in response to growing calls on the government to address the situation from companies and industries facing acute labor shortages.

Even though the new system, which still needs Diet approval, would allow foreign nationals to work in limited sectors facing severe labor shortages, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe maintains it would not herald a full-fledged opening of the country to immigrants.

However, experts on labor and immigration argue that foreign labor should not simply be treated as a quick fix, calling for a fundamental and longer-term approach to encouraging people of different nationalities to assimilate into society.

“Accepting foreign workers (in new fields) requires Japan to shoulder a heavy responsibility to make the social system accommodating. This may necessitate changes to its system along the way,” said Eriko Suzuki, a professor at Kokushikan University in Tokyo, who is well versed in immigration policy.

“Japan has maintained a position of not accepting blue-collar workers, but people from different countries are already in Japan through various channels such as the government-sponsored technical training program,” Suzuki said. “So officially accepting them as ‘workers’ is an important step.”

The number of foreign nationals stood at around 2.5 million as of January, up some 174,000 from the previous year, lifted by demand for foreign labor, government figures show. Japan’s total population, including foreign residents, fell by around 200,000 from a year earlier to about 128 million, due largely to aging.

The labor market remains tight, with the availability of jobs at a four-decade high while the world’s third-largest economy enjoys modest growth.

The Cabinet approved legislation Friday to create new visa types for foreign nationals with Japanese language skills wishing to work in Japan, with the goal of launching them in April.

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

The second type would be for those with higher-level professional and Japanese-language skills, with no limit on renewal. Those applying for this visa category would be allowed to bring in family members and could effectively stay in the country permanently.

The government is expected to pick 14 sectors that are in urgent need of labor, such as construction, farming, elderly care and airport services, with no cap planned at present on the number of foreign workers accepted into the country.

But details of the targeted sectors are still sketchy, and it remains unknown how the government will confirm labor shortages have been resolved, a criteria that would enable officials to suspend the acceptance of foreign labor.

To accommodate newcomers, improving social security is seen as a priority. Even now, residents in Japan, regardless of nationality, need to be enrolled in the national pension and health insurance systems.

But some people have been calling for measures against possible abuse of the systems following the revelation of cases in which foreign nationals who do not reside in Japan received health care coverage as dependents of their family members living in the country.

Concern about the impact of the envisaged visa system on social welfare programs, some lawmakers in the Liberal Democratic Party are urging the government to make sure incoming workers also fulfill their obligations such as payment of taxes and health insurance premiums.

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