A proposal to accept more foreign workers into Japan was incorporated into a draft of the government's so-called "big-boned" policy to combat the country's grave labor shortage, which is particularly serious in five fields including construction, farming, and nursing care.
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If implemented, the proposal, released on June 5, would open up Japan's doors to foreign menial laborers, which in principle has heretofore been banned, and therefore would constitute a drastic shift in government policy. The government is aiming by April 2019 to establish the relevant status of residence for workers that come under the category, and to bring in over 500,000 workers by the year 2025.
The government's draft policy proposal has emerged against a backdrop of labor shortages associated with low birthrate and a quickly graying society. It is likely the government determined that the policy of "dynamic engagement of all 100 million citizens" including seniors and women, in addition to labor-saving efforts through the use of robots would not suffice.
The expansion of foreign labor is a worldwide trend, and is essential for economic growth. It is only natural for Japan, where depopulation is progressing at a rapid pace, to consider opening up its workplaces to foreign workers.
However, there are no social policies in sight whose purposes are to promote the harmonious coexistence of Japanese nationals with foreign workers who will be increasing in number if such labor policies are implemented.
It appears that focus is placed so much on solving the urgent issue of not having enough manpower that consideration for protecting the lives of working foreigners is deeply lacking. If Japan only sees foreign workers as bodies filling in Japan's labor gaps, it would only be creating more problems in the future.
The Technical Intern Training Program, a precedent to the proposed opening up of menial labor to foreign workers, has shed light on cases in which interns have been exploited through such things as unpaid wages and long working hours. We must not repeat the same mistakes.
China, South Korea and Thailand have been active in promoting the recruitment of highly skilled foreign labor. If Japan offers poor labor conditions, it will jeopardize its chances of attracting workers amid such competition. Japan must be prepared to not only provide good labor conditions, including fair wages, but also give additional considerations such as social security benefits.
The government insists that the new policy proposal is different from an immigration policy. Indeed, the new proposal generally caps one's period of stay at five years and presupposes that the worker who comes to Japan under the visa will ultimately return to their home country.
However, there is a possibility that if a worker passes a Japanese language exam and a specialized expertise test, the cap on their period of stay can be eliminated, and their family can accompany them. If that is the case, then the line between such workers and so-called "immigrants" becomes blurred.
There is no denying of a deep-rooted fear among the Japanese that public security will deteriorate if the number of foreign nationals in Japan rises. But that does not justify giving preferential treatment to xenophobic rhetoric.
What we should be aspiring to is a society in which workers from other countries can develop relationships and lives with local communities. And for that to become a reality, both the public and private sectors must deepen debate over the further opening of Japan to foreign workers.