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Industry assoc. wants foreign workers at convenience stores to be covered by new work visa

A student from Southeast Asia works as a clerk at a Lawson convenience store in Osaki, in Tokyo's Shinagawa Ward, on Sept. 12, 2018. (Mainichi)

TOKYO -- In response to the government's planned introduction of a new residency status for foreign laborers, the Japan Franchise Association (JFA) is considering submitting a request to have convenience store clerk included under the new work visa, top association officials revealed to the Mainichi Shimbun in a recent interview.

All of Japan's convenience store companies belong to the association, and as it stands, work at a store would be seen as "simple labor" and fall outside of the government's target group for the new status, namely foreigners with a "high level of skill in a complex field." Attention is focused on whether the association's request, if granted, would be enough to overcome the labor shortage in the industry.

Faced with a labor shortage due to Japan's shrinking working population, the ratio of Japan's convenience store workers who are foreign nationals is already rising, and the four largest chains already employ more than 50,000 foreign staff in total.

As for residency statuses that allow foreign nationals to work domestic jobs in Japan, work visas and the technical trainee system exist. However, it is difficult to obtain regular work visas targeted at professionals, and working at a convenience store is outside the scope of the technical trainee program. Because of this, most foreign nationals working at convenience stores are on student visas with "Permission to Engage in Activity other that Permitted under the Status of Residence Previously Granted," which comes with a limit of 28 hours of labor per week.

The government is aiming to introduce a new residency status next April that allows foreign nationals to work in Japan for up to five years, in order to expand the country's acceptance of foreign laborers. The provisionally named "specialized skill" status would be for technical trainees who have completed the maximum of five years, as well as foreigners that have met certain standards in skilled work and are proficient in the Japanese language. The imagined industries for the new status include construction, agriculture, nursing care, shipbuilding, and tourism and lodging, and would not include so-called "basic labor" such as working as a store clerk.

Due to this situation, the JFA is poised to team up with the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry to convince the Ministry of Justice to add convenience stores to the industries to be covered by the new status.

"The convenience store industry is facing a serious labor shortage," said a top JFA official. "The operation of a store takes a high level of skill in multiple areas, as the work requires complicated tasks such as customer service, ordering products and managing stock, and is not simple labor at all. I would like it to definitely be added" to the industries covered by the new residency status.

In addition to requesting the government to raise the legal working hours limit for student visa holders, the association also plans to file an application for convenience stores to be added to the technical trainee program in the near future. The JFA claims that trainees will be taught how to run a store, and the knowledge will become useful for opening their own business upon returning to their home country. In addition, having experienced people on the ground in other countries would also make it easier for the Japanese chains to move into foreign markets.

The number of foreign nationals working at Japan's four major convenience store chains was 55,300 as of August 2018, the first time the number has ever exceeded 50,000. The ratio of non-Japanese staff at stores run by Seven-Eleven Japan Co. stands at roughly 7.9 percent, about 5 percent at FamilyMart Co., 5.8 percent at Lawson Inc. and 9.7 percent at Ministop Co. The majority of these workers are students from other Asian nations that attend vocational or Japanese language schools.

For students studying abroad, working at a convenience store comes with merits such as increasing their language proficiency through communicating with customers.

"Working at a convenience store is much better than hard labor," said a 23-year-old woman from Myanmar employed at the Lawson TOC Osaki store in Tokyo's Shinagawa Ward. She is in her third year in Japan, and works at the store three times a week after classes at a vocational school. If there are things the students do not understand, she said she can ask her friends from Myanmar who also mostly work at convenience stores and exchange information.

Convenience store chains are also making efforts to hire foreign students, with Lawson Inc. opening a total of four training centers in Vietnam and South Korea from 2016, where they learn basic Japanese and how to operate a cash register before coming to Japan. So far, 200 students have reportedly gone through the program.

In addition, Okinawa FamilyMart, which runs the chain in Japan's southernmost prefecture of Okinawa, began a two-month internship program in July and August for several Taiwanese university students from 2016. This year, three students worked at the chain, and a representative from the company explained, "In the summer, many tourists come from China and Taiwan, and it helps to have staff members who can communicate with customers." Seven-Eleven also began an internship for Vietnamese university students in July this year.

(Japanese original Akane Imamura, Business News Department)

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