Japan is now mulling on loosening up a program that offers foreigners opportunities to work in Japan for up to three years. The program, which will allow nationals from China and other countries, is part of the Abe administration’s solution to an aging workforce. The new proposal submitted by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party on Tuesday includes prolonging the length of stay from three to up to five years, relaxing hiring rules for employers and opening more jobs to foreigners.
Lawmaker Yasuhisa Shiozaki from the LDP penned the proposal saying, “We will strengthen the governance of the program. We are aware of the concerns and we allowed people who had objections to voice their objections.” He also noted that the party wants stricter penalties imposed on Japanese firms that abuse foreign workers and will employ external inspectors and local government units to monitor strict compliance to the rules. The foreign worker program was started in 1993 with around 150,000 workers, mostly from China sponsored to work in Japan. Companies from the garments and farming industries accepted these workers on a trainee basis, which will allow them to learn technical expertise. However, many labor activists and lawyers report low wages, which are illegal, and even confiscation of passports. These conditions were characterized by the United Nations as “may well amount to slavery” in 2012, and the government was urged to abandon the program.
But with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s ambitious economic plans, Japan is in need of more workers, specifically in the construction and farming industries. But with almost half of its population nearing the ages of 65 and older, shortage in the labor force may affect these efforts. Shoichi Ibusuki, a lawyer who has represented many foreign workers, opined that the proposed safeguards may still not be enough and called for the government to scrap the program instead. “The workers can’t freely choose their workplace after coming to Japan. They are refused the right to sign and cancel contracts, so they have no freedom as laborers,” he said. He added, “If you don’t fix this structural problem, it doesn’t matter how much you tighten regulations, it won’t go away.” In 2012 alone, around 200 companies were found to have abused their trainees. Despite these concerns, Shiozaki said two government panels under Abe would meet to talk about the proposal and consider making it part of a growth strategy to be finalized by June.