TOKYO -- Starting Monday, Japan will formally accept blue-collar workers from overseas as the revised immigration law takes effect.
The law is designed to address problems with the existing "technical trainee program," a stopgap measure meant to deal with the country's chronic labor shortage. Those hired as "trainees," mostly from Asia, in practice often served as low-cost workers.
Here are five things to know about the new worker visa program.
How different is the new system?
While the technical trainee program is open to anyone at 18 or older, the new resident status for workers with "Type 1 specified skills" is open only to those with the requisite technical and Japanese language skills. Unlike trainees, who cannot switch employers, those with the new visa can change employers and stay for up to five years through annual contract renewals. Most of the applicants for the new visa are expected to be those who have completed the three-year trainee program.
Visas for both technical trainees and workers with specified skills are granted only to the trainees or workers themselves. Their spouses and children are ineligible. Visas for dependents are granted only to those with higher-level "Type 2 specified skills." Type 2 visas can be renewed indefinitely and allow workers to bring their spouse and children to Japan. At the moment, only workers in construction and shipbuilding are eligible for Type 2 visas.
The government expects to grant specified skills visas to around 340,000 blue-collar workers over the next five years, in addition to technical trainees. Japan accepted some 480,000 trainees between 2013 and 2017.
According to the Cabinet Office, Japan has a shortage of about 1.2 million workers, mainly in labor-intensive sectors such as construction, agriculture, fishing, hotels and restaurants.
How does one qualify for the new worker visas?
Those who have completed the three-year trainee program are eligible for Type 1 visas. Those who have not taken part in the trainee program can apply by taking language and skills tests in Japan or in their own countries. Tests will be held in nine Asian countries -- Cambodia, China, Malaysia, Mongolia, Myanmar, Nepal, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam.
Those who hold an N4 Japanese proficiency qualification -- second from the bottom on the five-tier scale -- are exempt from the language requirement.
Once applicants pass the exams, they must find an open position through public or private job-placement agencies. After they receive a job offer, they can apply for a visa.
What types of assistance do workers receive after they arrive?
Employers are obliged to help foreign workers settle in Japan by helping them open a bank account; learn the language, rules, and customs; and find accommodations and medical services. Employers are likely to partner with registered service providers, which may include language schools, staffing agencies, law firms, chambers of commerce, agricultural cooperatives and nongovernmental organizations.
One of the biggest differences between the new worker visas and the trainee program is the opening up of worker oversight to private companies. The hope is that private companies, such as large job placement agencies, will be able to manage large numbers of workers more efficiently and professionally. Whether this will be the case remains to be seen.
Under the trainee program, worker oversight is delegated to more than 2,000 supervisory bodies across the country -- typically trade organizations, chambers of commerce, agricultural cooperatives and other not-for-profit organizations.
What about the problem of missing workers?
Japan accepts more than 100,000 technical trainees each year. Of these, about 2,000, or 2%, go missing every year. As of 2018, the whereabouts of more than 9,000 trainees were unknown, according to the Justice Ministry.
There are various reasons for the disappearances. Some trainees in rural areas may have simply moved to a better paying job in a big city. But in a report released Friday, the ministry said that more than 10% of the cases are due to problems with employers, such as failure to pay the agreed wage, abuse and excessive work hours.
To crack down on underpayment, the ministry now requires employers to submit to the immigration bureau proof that they are paying proper wages to foreign workers, such as bank statements.
The new visa program also clarifies other labor rights, such as paid holidays and furloughs allowing workers to return home for visits. Previously trainees found it difficult to return home before the end of their three-year stint. But trainees are entitled to the same labor rights as Japanese, and can take a paid holiday to visit their home countries, the ministry says.
Another recurring problem with the trainee program was how pregnancies were handled. Trainees were often told to avoid becoming pregnant in order to focus on the program. Some women were dismissed after acknowledging they had become pregnant. The ministry says such dismissals are a violation punishable under the equal employment opportunity law. Trainees who become pregnant, should discuss the situation with their employer and decide whether the trainee can continue the program, or give birth in their home country before resuming.
What about the issue of illegal job brokers?
One of the biggest problems with the trainee program is the existence of illegal job brokers. These brokers lure people into the trainee program, promising them the opportunity to earn a lot of money in Japan. They often charge fees of $10,000 or more. The heavy debts that trainees sometimes incur is a contributing factor in their fleeing low-paid jobs.
Brokers mainly operate in sending countries, but there are some in Japan as well. The Justice Ministry says it will work to stamp out the brokers by not accepting applications from those who use them. Japan has also signed agreements with law enforcement agencies in sending nations to share information job broker activity.