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Editorial: Technical trainee system faults cannot be ignored as new visa statuses pondered

The government has revealed the gist of legal revisions for the creation of new residency statuses in a bid to accept more foreign workers.

The new measure is a policy turnaround for Japan, from its traditional official position of refusing to accept menial labor from abroad while using foreign technical intern trainees and students effectively as workers. This arrangement, however, has fallen short of alleviating serious labor shortages, prompting the government to respond to requests from the business community and consider opening the door for overseas workers to find legal employment in 14 industries including agriculture, nursing care and fishing. Convenience stores also want to hire more foreigners through the new residency scheme.

According to the outline presented by the Ministry of Justice, foreigners will be given a residency status allowing them to live in Japan for up to five years if they pass a Japanese language proficiency test. Those confirmed to have special expertise will be allowed to stay longer, with their family members.

Japanese employers, meanwhile, will be required to fulfill certain employment standards such as paying salaries similar to or more than those for Japanese workers. In addition, support programs for such workers' daily lives will be strengthened. If all these measures are actually taken, foreign workers will benefit substantially.

The number of foreigners employed in Japan reached 1.27 million last year, more than double the figure 10 years ago. Of that total, residents with special expertise-based residency statuses such as university professors and doctors numbered around 230,000, while technical intern trainees and students actually in Japan to work constituted about 540,000.

The technical trainee program was originally designed to have foreigners train in Japan and return home with experience and expertise they acquired here. But in reality, the program is used to make up for labor shortfalls. This contradiction will be maintained even after the introduction of the new residency statuses.

Trainees with three years or more of experience can switch their status to a new one allowing a five-year stay without taking a test. This will allow them to work for up to 10 years in Japan as trainees themselves can stay for a maximum five years. This appears to be the main goal of the new policy.

Many technical intern trainees are exploited by brokers back home who charge exorbitant fees to match them with Japanese firms, or by host companies that force them to work long hours for low pay. They may end up working side by side with workers with new residency status with better employment conditions. Such a situation may cause a major disparity among foreign workers.

The government should tackle this complicated residency status problem head on.

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