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Economy

Abe vows to bring in more foreign workers

Japan to issue new work permit to attract 500,000 people by 2025

Interns from Indonesia harvest cabbages in Ibaraki Prefecture. The government wants to bring in more foreign workers to relieve Japan's labor shortage. (Photo by Ken Kobayashi)

TOKYO -- Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Tuesday announced plans to accept more workers from abroad to ease Japan's labor shortages. But the country has a long way to go to facilitate their social integration through language programs and other measures.

The government plans to create a new type of work permit next April for five severely undermanned sectors, including construction, agriculture and nursing care. It seeks to attract more than 500,000 foreign workers by 2025 by opening Japan's doors also to unskilled laborers, who generally have not been granted work permits.

Smaller businesses outside the big cities face a serious labor shortage, Abe noted at a meeting of the Council on Economic and Fiscal Policy. "We will swiftly create a framework to bring in a wide range of work-ready foreign talent with a certain level of skills and expertise." 

The government plans to include the new work permit in its basic economic and fiscal policy to be ironed out by the cabinet this month, and to submit the necessary legislation to the Diet as early as this fall.

Tokyo envisions two paths for foreign workers to acquire the new permit. First, they can complete the Technical Intern Training Program, which lasts up to five years. Participants are currently required to return home at the end, but the government wants to let them use their newly gained skills in Japan.

The other route is to pass an exam on technical and Japanese language skills. Workers will need to be able to hold a basic conversation in Japanese, though those in construction and agriculture could be approved with less proficiency.

Japan's labor force stands at about 66 million, with foreign workers accounting for about 1.27 million, or roughly one in 50, as of the end of October. The country's working-age population, defined as those between the ages of 15 and 64, is expected to drop by 15 million between this fiscal year and fiscal 2040.

But as Japan opens up to make up for its own shrinking population, it is also keenly aware of the challenges it could face.

West Germany, for example, brought in a large number of Turkish workers in the 1960s to fill manual labor positions during a labor shortage. Many of these immigrants spoke no German and had trouble integrating. Cultural differences and harsh working conditions led to further rifts in society.

Language skills will be key to ensuring foreign workers can settle smoothly in Japan. The government has sent experts to municipal governments and sponsored Japanese language classes under a 2006 policy on foreign residents. It could also work with employers to provide educational opportunities.

Ensuring good working conditions for foreign residents remains a challenge as well. Many face unfair treatment, such as employers refusing to provide social insurance. The new framework will require that foreign workers be paid the same as their Japanese peers, but the government still needs to iron out rules regarding broader working conditions.

The government plans to revise legislation on Japan's "My Number" tax and social-security ID system next year so these numbers can be used to track the work status of foreign residents in the country. This could help prevent workers from being forced to put in more hours than the mandated cap, for example.

Japan is not the only country wooing outside workers. Thailand and South Korea are both expected to see a decrease in their working-age population starting around 2020, and are bringing in foreign laborers to make up for the shortfall.

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