TOKYO -- Japan is bringing in more foreign workers to help address a labor shortage, and the government wants to make sure Tokyo and other major cities are not the only places that benefit from the additional manpower.
The government has introduced a policy package aimed at getting an expected wave of foreign workers to understaffed businesses in rural areas. Japan plans to accept 340,000 workers from overseas over five years under a new visa program.
The country is suffering a labor crunch in sectors like construction, hospitality and nursing care. The problem is particularly acute in the countryside as more workers leave for the higher wages in Tokyo and other cities.
Under the new proposals, local governments and Hello Work public job-placement offices will work together to help short-handed small local companies hire foreign workers. The central government will also provide financial support to local governments that are helping nursing care services employ foreign caregivers.
The measures come in response to feedback from industry organizations and local administrations, many of which worried that only companies in major cities would be able to take advantage of the expected influx of foreign workers.
The policy proposals also aim to tackle longstanding problems in the "technical intern training program," which has been criticized for labor law violations, including nonpayment of wages. The government now wants companies that hire foreign workers to pay their wages into their bank accounts.
The government presented the new measures to a conference of ministries and agencies on Monday. It will be formalized by a group of cabinet ministers and included in the government's main economic plan that will be revealed in late June. The measures will be funded in the budget for the fiscal year that begins next April.
The new policy package also features measures aimed at making life a bit easier for newly arriving foreign workers.
An existing system that provides subsidies for local governments with counseling services for foreign workers will be expanded, and a new integrated information service for foreign workers will be established. Various government organizations will also see their services integrated into new one-stop centers.
As a part of the effort to clean up the technical intern program -- which for years served as a backdoor for companies to make use of unskilled foreign workers -- employers will have to pay wages directly employees' bank accounts and submit payrolls to authorities.
The program has been plagued by violations and abusive practices, including illegally low pay, which has led to many cases of foreign trainees fleeing their designated workplaces.
Additional steps will be taken to make it easier for the authorities to monitor trainees' actual working conditions.
Foreign students studying in Japan will also be covered by some of the new measures. Universities that lose track of many foreign students will be denied permission to accept additional overseas students and face cuts in government subsidies.
Japanese-language curriculums at universities will be set to a similar standard as those at dedicated Japanese-language schools, according to the Justice Ministry. Universities that do not meet those standards will not be allowed to accept foreign students.
Many vocational schools and Japanese-language schools accept foreign students who come to Japan to work and earn money, rather than to study. These institutions are criticized for effectively encouraging foreign students to stay in Japan to work illegally after their student visas expire.