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Difficult road ahead to accept more foreign workers in Japan

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaks in the Diet on Oct. 30, 2018. (Mainichi/Masahiro Kawata)

TOKYO -- Both the opposition and ruling camps are opposed to the government's plan to accept more foreign workers starting next spring, suggesting the road to the introduction of the open-door policy will be long and rocky.

During the House of Representatives debate on Oct. 29, opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP) chief Yukio Edano attacked Prime Minister Shinzo Abe over the proposal. "How different is the plan from accepting immigrants, which the premier has been opposing?" Edano pointedly asked.

The opposition bases its criticism on the vagueness of the government plan. For one, the government does not specify in detail which industry is going to accept how many workers.

Edano told the Diet that launching the project without sufficient preparations can prompt the international community to question the level of human rights protection in Japan and "will cause serious problems in the future." Democratic Party for the People head Yuichiro Tamaki echoed Edano's criticism, saying that the government explanation does not show him "the big picture."

Furthermore, voices of frustration are coming from the ruling camp itself. Tomomi Inada, a close aide to Abe, told the Diet that there are opinions that the open-door policy "will end up accepting immigrants." House of Councillors legislator Shigeharu Aoyama expressed his opposition to the proposal at a meeting of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party's Judicial Affairs Division on Oct. 29. A social welfare system for foreign workers cannot be prepared in time, he said.

Another participant said many people regard those new foreign workers as immigrants, adding that Japan "has to learn from the failure of Germany" where a massive influx of immigrants has caused confusion. Lawmakers ideologically close to Abe are also opposed to the plan, presenting a difficult situation to solve for the premier.

Despite these criticisms, the Abe administration regards the open-door policy of accepting more foreign workers as the feature of its policy platform in the current extraordinary session of the Diet.

An LDP Judicial Affairs Division lawmaker said the party intends to pass legal revisions needed for the new policy through the current Diet session as soon as possible. "A voice from heaven is behind us, so noises from below won't change the situation," said the legislator, suggesting that Abe is firm in his goal to realize the new initiative.

One major hurdle that needs to be cleared is establishing a social welfare system for foreign workers. "We have to prepare an environment so that people who want to work in Japan can do so with a peace of mind," said Shinjiro Koizumi, who heads the LDP's Health, Labor and Welfare Division that met on the issue on Oct. 29.

Foreign workers to be accepted in Japan under new residency statuses to be introduced will have to be covered by health insurance, pension and unemployment insurance programs. But even now, many foreign workers remain outside such programs. Leaving the situation unattended will result in foreign workers without access to medical services and unemployment support.

On this issue, the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare launched a survey in 2015 based on data supplied by the National Tax Agency on employers who hired foreign workers. The ministry intends to cooperate with municipal governments and the Japan Pension Service to create a system to confirm if a worker is covered by a pension program. It will also consider subsidizing medical institutions to cover the cost of hiring interpreters.

A focal issue of pension coverage for foreigners is the length of time a would-be beneficiary needs to remain in the system to receive the money. The minimum length in Japan is 10 years, and participants lose eligibility to receive payments if they leave Japan earlier. The health ministry has signed agreements with foreign countries so that their nationals working in Japan will not have to pay premiums both at home and in Japan. As many as 18 countries, mostly in Europe and North America, have effective agreements with Japan. Workers coming from countries without such an agreement with Japan will be treated based on the spirit of the accord, according to a ministry official.

The government plan may also trigger complaints among Japanese workers who feel that they are being treated in a discriminate manner compared to foreign workers. For example, dependents of foreign workers at private companies in Japan would be covered by corporate health insurance even when those family members are living overseas, creating an extra financial burden on operators of such health insurance programs.

In March, the health ministry instructed health insurance operators and others to require "public certificates" to officially recognize dependents of foreign workers, but confirming their validity is no easy task, say health insurance managers.

Some LDP members worry that some foreign workers may fake their residency status to receive medical services. Koizumi pointed out that the sense of unfairness may cause trouble in the future.

(Japanese original by Jun Aoki, Political News Department, and Masahiro Sakai, Medical Welfare News Department)

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