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Editorial: Japan can learn from S. Korea over foreign worker policy

A worldwide competition is underway in search of workers. South Korea is especially active in this race in East Asia.

The country was originally negative about hiring foreigners. But as more South Koreans were avoiding jobs like those at small- and medium-sized companies, Seoul was forced to take action due to the decline in the birth rate and the greying of society and ventured into new waters.

Learning from the Japanese precedent, South Korea introduced an industrial trainee system in 1993. But under the name of training, some of those trainees were forced to work under tough conditions and fled their workplaces as a result. This made illegal stays a focus of social concern. South Korea has already experienced the situation that Japan now faces with the Technical Intern Training Program.

The South Korean government was quick in realizing the problem. In 2004, Seoul introduced a new system called a work permit program in which the government was responsible for the acceptance of foreign workers.

Under the program, South Korea signs a bilateral agreement with a country that is sending their nationals as workers. This is to exclude job placement agencies that do not play by the book while securing a stable supply of workers. Seoul now has its government offices in countries where foreign workers originate to make necessary arrangements for their employment. Those countries can feel secure that their nationals are treated properly in South Korea. As many as 16 nations, including Vietnam, have signed such agreements.

This South Korean precedent, in which the host government is responsible for recruiting and dispatching foreign workers, is full of lessons for Japan.

Under the current Japanese plan, the government's involvement stops at the point where Tokyo decides on how many foreign workers to accept in which industries. Those responsible for accepting them are companies hiring them and registration support organizations to be set up by industries where those companies belong. This arrangement leaves open the possibility that exploitation would remain in the foreign job placement industry.

In South Korea, the government is responsible for the education of the Korean language for foreigners. Seoul also organizes social integration policies by organizing courses on tradition and the culture of the East Asian country. In Germany, too, where many foreign workers live, Berlin guarantees that they receive at least 600 hours of language education.

However, the South Korean situation is far from perfect. Some workers are overstaying their visas, and foreign employees cannot choose companies they wish to work for in principle. Nevertheless, Seoul's stance is completely different from Tokyo's in that Japan attempts to confine the acceptance of foreign workers to the immigration control policy.

Japan's edge in the global competition for workers in terms of salaries is eroding. Foreign workers will no longer pick our country if we stick with our self-serving conditions.

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