What's at stake: inside Shinzo Abe's efforts to bring more foreign workers into Japan

The Japanese government is currently trying to change its long-held foreign worker policy. It hopes to relax immigration rules, allowing more foreign workers into the country. The major policy change is being driven by an acute labor shortage caused by an ageing and shrinking population.

A major shift in policy

Japan currently accepts only highly-skilled workers, such as university researchers, doctors, and lawyers. Some industries employ foreign workers under a trainee program that allows them in the country for a limited time.

The government wants to revise the Immigration Control Law and allow foreign workers in more sectors, including blue-collar industries. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's Cabinet approved a bill revising the Immigration Control Law on November 2nd. It aims for the legislation to be put into force starting April 2019.

The government's plan

The legislation introduces a new residence status for foreign workers, divided in 2 categories.

The first category will be granted to foreign nationals with what officials call "certain vocational skills" in "specified fields." It will be valid for up to 5 years but they will not be allowed to bring family.

The second status will be applied to foreign nationals with "more advanced skills." There will be no limit to how long they can stay and they will be allowed to bring family.

The government wants to apply this new status to 14 sectors. They are: elderly care, cleaning, material processing, industrial machinery production, IT, construction, ship building, auto engineering, aviation, hotel, agriculture, fishery, restaurants, and food and beverage.

The government plans for most workers to be directly hired by companies.

Serious labor shortage

Behind the policy change is the country's labor shortage.

A study by Chuo University and think tank Persol Research and Consulting expects about 6,440,000 jobs to be unfilled in 2030. That's more than 9 percent of the country's market demands.

The government is under pressure from businesses to make up for this labor shortfall by bringing in more foreign workers.

Keidanren, or the Japan Business Federation, has been lobbying on the issue. "Japan must have more flexibility so that it can lure foreign workers to Japanese businesses suffering from the chronic labor shortage," says Chairman Hiroaki Nakanishi.

Estimated number of workers

The Labor Ministry says about 1,278,000 foreigners were working in Japan as of October 2017. 29% are Chinese, followed by Vietnamese at 19%, and Filipinos at 12%.

The government estimates about 33,000 to 47,000 foreign workers to come to Japan in fiscal 2019. About 260,000 to 340,000 are expected in the following 5 years.

Abe said these figures are the upper limit of the number of workers the country will accept.

Fierce Diet deliberation

Lawmakers started debating the bill in the Diet's Lower House plenary session on November 13th.

The ruling coalition of Abe's Liberal Democratic Party and junior partner Komeito wants to pass the legislation during the current session, which ends in December.

"The labor shortages in Japan are urgent," Abe says. "Areas where the government plans to take in foreigners as a ready workforce are those that are short of workers despite efforts to improve productivity and domestic recruitment."

Abe stressed the plan is not immigration policy. He says the measure will not allow foreign workers and their families to stay for an indefinite period simply to maintain the economy.

The opposition bloc has been fiercely critical of the Prime Minister. It wants to block the bill, saying further debate is needed.

President of the largest opposition party, the Constitutional Liberal Democratic Party, Yukio Edano says the bill is empty and lacks details. His party demands Abe to make the bill to stipulate more details on how many workers the country will accept and under what conditions.

The opposition bloc also says the government needs to come up with a social welfare scheme for foreign workers, including health insurance and pensions.

Some civic groups are concerned about foreigner worker rights, like minimum wage and guarantees against long hours. Others say the government needs to support schools so they can provide Japanese language training for workers and have the capacity to accept the inevitable increase in the number of foreign children.

Some are concerned about social friction. LDP lawmakers said in the Diet session that citizens are worried about foreign workers potentially stealing their jobs, driving down wages, and committing crimes.

Divided public opinion

NHK's monthly telephone poll for November indicates people in Japan are divided over the issue.
Respondents were asked what they think about an increase in the number of foreign workers.

Respondents were also asked about the ruling coalition's plan to enact the legislation during the current Diet session.