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Shrinking Japan: High hurdles driving prospective foreign workers to other countries

People line up at the exclusive entrance for OFWs (overseas Filipino workers) at Manila International Airport in the Philippine capital recently. (Mainichi/Aya Takeuchi)

MANILA -- "We'll miss you. Hang in there!" A yell emerged from a group of people as they sent off a man and woman carrying a large amount of baggage at Manila International Airport here in the Philippine capital.

The pair were so-called "OFW"-- overseas Filipino workers -- who have special gates and immigration counters at the airport. The Philippines, where the working age population between 15 and 64 is expected to grow until 2062, has been an international source of labor.

One such worker is Rhea Panganiban, a 27-year-old wife and mother of two small children who currently live in a Manila suburb. She plans to work as a resident housekeeper in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in the near future.

"It'll be tough for us to live separately, but if one of us works overseas, life will become much easier. I will stay at least for two years," she says.

Her husband Aries, 28, an electrician, considered applying for Japan's technical intern trainee program, but gave up. "I heard that the Japanese-language requirement was quite tough," he explained.

Rhea decided to go to the UAE because English, which is the official language in the Philippines, is also spoken there and obtaining a work permit is easier.

In the Philippines, high jobless rates and salary gaps have driven people to work overseas, men mainly as construction workers or ship crew, and women often as nurses or housekeepers. As many as 2.34 million Filipinos worked overseas from April through September 2017, with about 60 percent going to the Middle East. Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Kuwait are the top destinations, followed by locations such as Hong Kong or Singapore. Japan ranks seventh.

So why isn't Japan attracting more Filipino workers? "Some people say they want to work in Japan as a technical intern trainee because it's closer and the salaries are better, but they end up having second thoughts because it takes several months to complete the paperwork and training before actually visiting Japan," explained Nora Braganza, the owner of HRD Employment Consultants & Multi-services, Inc. in Manila. "People who need money quickly choose the Middle East because you can start working there within two to three weeks."

According to Braganza, some have first gone to the Middle East, saved money, and then become trainees in Japan, but many have then gone overseas again following their return to the Philippines, unable to find good jobs at home.

"Former trainees in Japan are popular among foreign companies as they tend to be dependable from day one," she said. Filipino workers trained in Japan are flown out to third countries.

Bernard Olalia, administrator of the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration, says Japan would be an "attractive destination" for overseas workers "if they were treated equally as Japanese workers and lived together with their family members." Her comment was a reference to Japan's planned new residency status that does not allow foreign workers to bring their family members with them during the first five years of their stay in Japan. However, the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is not likely to compromise on this issue, saying the new status is "not an immigration program."

Japan is not alone in being cautious about accepting immigrants. South Korea also limits the period of stay for laborers in sectors such as construction to three years under a program introduced in 2004. The government monitors labor shortage situations by industry, and sets quotas for foreign workers. The program obligates the state to guarantee the same working conditions for foreign workers as their South Korean counterparts and provide language education. The system is highly appreciated by the International Labor Organization.

Japan is rushing to introduce a new program to accept more foreign workers in a bid to stay ahead of international competition for overseas workers. But focusing too much on easing its own labor shortages does not guarantee that Japan will be selected by those workers.

Hideaki Kikuchi of the Japan Research Institute's research division, pointed out that the government "should clarify acceptance standards for foreign workers, and support programs for them by municipal governments and employers."

--- Japan's labor shortages widespread

The government is considering accepting more foreign workers into 14 industrial sectors including construction and manufacturing, but they are by no means the only areas facing a dearth of workers. According to a Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry research paper published in June 2016, information technology companies and their customers are expected to be hit with a shortage of 369,000 workers in 2020 and 789,000 in 2030, if the industry continues to grow at a high pace.

Securing IT engineers has been a national goal for India, and the country has successfully produced people who sit on the boards of IT titans such as Microsoft and Google. Working in the U.S. is a "dream" for Indian IT engineers, and tens of thousands of them visit the U.S. every year.

Many Indian IT engineers have also expressed hopes of working in Japan. But the language barrier and lower salaries compared to those in the U.S. stand in the way.

(Japanese original by Aya Takeuchi, Jakarta Bureau, and Arimasa Mori, Business News Department)

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