TOKYO -- The lower house of Japan's parliament passed legislation on Tuesday that would open the country's doors wider to foreign workers, bringing the bill a step closer to enactment, but issues such as capping new arrivals and ensuring decent working conditions remain unresolved.
The bill, approved with the support of the ruling coalition and other parties, will now be sent to the upper house, with the government hoping for enactment before the Diet session closes on Dec. 10.
Under the program, Japan would issue visas to low-skilled workers for the first time to address a severe worker shortage, marking a major shift in the country's immigration policy. But the program has set off a heated debate over such issues as accepting permanent immigrants as well as improving the harsh working conditions of foreign laborers currently employed as technical interns.
As part of an agreement reached Monday between the ruling coalition and opposition party Nippon Ishin no Kai, which voted for the bill, the legislation now includes a clause mandating a review two years after it goes into effect, instead of the original three.
The amendment to Japan's immigration control law will create two new visa categories: one for five years granted to workers with a certain level of Japanese-language ability in 14 undermanned sectors, and a second, renewable visa for more skilled workers. Only those in the second category will be able to bring their families.
During the deliberations in the lower house , the opposition camp repeatedly raised the issue of technical interns, many of whom are expected to switch to the new visa once the program starts. Those workers are often forced to work long hours with meager pay, and the program has been criticized as a way to bring in cheap labor.
Opposition parties also demanded an estimate and limit for the number of foreigners the new visas will attract. "We are not thinking of setting a numerical cap," Justice Minister Takashi Yamashita said before lower-house deliberations began.
The government eventually submitted to the Diet an estimate of 345,150 workers in the less-skilled category for the five years starting next April.
The number "is what relevant agencies came up with, and is not a cap," Yamashita reiterated at a lower-house budget meeting Monday. For his part, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said limits will be listed in industry-by-industry guidelines to be issued after the amendment is passed.
But opposition parties are still not convinced. They initiated a motion to censure Yamashita ahead of Tuesday's session, though it was defeated by the ruling coalition.
There is also concern that newly arrived workers will settle in urban areas instead of rural regions where manpower shortages are serious. The ruling coalition and Nippon Ishin no Kai inserted a revision to the bill calling for necessary steps to prevent workers' concentration in big cities.