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Japan immigration

Japan enacts wage protections ahead of foreign worker influx

Direct deposit and detailed records aimed at curbing exploitation

Workers in Japan's current foreign internship program have fled their posts by the thousands, most citing low pay. (Photo by Ken Kobayashi)

TOKYO -- Japan will tighten oversight of pay for foreign employees through ordinances issued Friday, aiming to address major concerns over working conditions as the country prepares to accept more labor from abroad starting next month.

Individuals working in Japan through two new visa categories for those possessing "specified skills" and some Japanese-language knowledge will typically be paid by direct deposit, a move designed to prevent wages from being withheld. Employers will report the number of foreign laborers and how those workers are paid to the authorities every quarter, as well as their estimated and actual payouts.

The country is expected to receive up to 47,550 foreign workers in the year beginning April 1, when the visa legislation takes effect, and draw roughly 345,000 in the first five years. But there is concern over the treatment of these workers, especially given criticism that a similar internship system for foreigners are often used as a pool of cheap labor.

A Ministry of Justice report last year identified low wages as a chief factor in driving the interns to flee their jobs by the thousands. Cash payments were the rule in the internship system, which led many intermediaries to exploit the workers.

Companies that do not pay workers properly will be issued guidance from regional immigration and labor authorities. Those that fail to shape up may face fines and a five-year ban on hiring foreigners. While these penalties mirror those in the foreign internship system, it is hoped the additional government oversight will press businesses into complying.

Rules issued Friday also ask employers to plan how they will support foreigners in their work, daily lives and efforts to learn the Japanese language. Employers will be asked to devise two new types of staff: one to provide advice and assistance to foreigners, and another for supervising the execution of these services. They will meet periodically with foreign workers and their on-site managers.

A Filipina worker in a Japanese nursing home, one of the industries hit hardest by Japan's labor crunch. (Photo by Nami Matsuura)

Hiroya Masuda, a former internal affairs minister who now is an adviser for Nomura Research Institute, called the new rules "a proper effort to prevent nonpayment or wage theft, based on reflections on the foreign internship system."

But risks remain, Masuda said, noting that some employers could retroactively deduct expenses from the workers' take-home pay.

"It remains to be seen if the authorities can keep a close enough eye to prevent the rules from becoming a dead letter," he said.

The government also plans to create 100 help desks for foreign workers nationwide. But as of Friday, just 37 municipalities had applied for funds to build them, the Ministry of Justice said. Many local governments are expected to fall short of staffing needs to address the problem in time for April.

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