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Diet deliberations expose deficiencies in bill to accept more foreign workers

Opposition legislators storm the seat of House of Representatives Judicial Affairs Committee Chairman Yasuhiro Hanashi on Nov. 27, 2018, in a bid to block the passage of a bill aimed at accepting additional foreign workers. (Mainichi/Masahiro Kawata)

TOKYO -- A bill paving the way for Japan to accept more foreign workers to alleviate serious labor shortages cleared the House of Representatives on Nov. 27 despite the exposure of its lack of substance and inadequacies in government preparations during Diet debate.

The proposed legislation outlines two new statuses of residence: a category 1 "specific skills" status of residence valid for five years, and a category 2 status for people to work in jobs requiring special expertise, whose holders would be entitled to long-term stays.

The administration estimates that up to 47,550 foreigners would be accepted in 14 industrial sectors under the category 1 residency status in the fiscal year starting April 2019 -- when the new system is expected to be introduced. Over the five-year period from fiscal 2019, the number is expected to rise to 345,150. However, these figures could change after the bill to revise the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act is enacted.

Shiori Yamao of the largest opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP) criticized the executive branch for its sloppy estimates before the bill cleared the lower house in a plenary session on Nov. 27.

"Discussions should be based on the estimate of the number of workers to be additionally accepted. It has come to light that the government released a hastily calculated figure of 340,000 (foreign workers) after the Cabinet approved the bill, and will recalculate the figure after its enactment," Yamao said.

The current figures are rough projections, as Justice Minister Takashi Yamashita said, and ministries and agencies overseeing these sectors are currently closely assessing the figures.

Experts, however, have raised questions about how the figures were calculated. Megumi Sakamoto, a professor at Fukushima University, pointed out that the government merely cited each industry's personnel requests when estimating the number of foreign workers that would be accepted under the new system.

The system relies heavily on current participants in the Technical Intern Training Program to secure foreign workers. It is expected that 45 percent of workers accepted in the 14 sectors over the five-year period from fiscal 2019 will be technical interns who are about to complete or have already completed their training programs.

Justice Minister Yamashita has insisted that the new residency statuses are separate from the trainee program.

In response to a question from Democratic Party for the People legislator Takeshi Shina, who argued out that postponement of the implementation of the new system by six months would not have any impact, Yamashita pointed to the possibility that tens of thousands of people who could gain category 1 residency status may be forced to return home.

When asked whether he was referring to technical intern trainees, the justice minister said the people forced to go home would include those who have other residency statuses, such as students.

Meanwhile, there are views that the category 2 residency status, which would allow holders to stay in Japan longer and be accompanied by their families, could pave the way for those holders to acquire permanent residency in Japan.

The government has denied that it will adopt a policy of accepting foreign immigrants without limit.

Under Justice Ministry guidelines, foreigners need to live in Japan for at least 10 years and spend five years of this period in Japan with a working qualification in order to obtain permanent residency. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has stated that the category 1 status in the proposed legislation is not regarded as a working qualification under these guidelines. At the same time, the government has decided not to accept foreign workers under the category 2 status for several years because industrial sectors and the relevant ministries and agencies are still unprepared to work out a system to accept them.

Meanwhile, industries other than the 14 sectors suffering from serious labor shortages are requesting that they be allowed to accept foreign workers under the new system. Convenience stores and supermarkets, for example, are among those seeing more foreign workers. However, they are not included in the industries subject to the new system because it is difficult to convince the government that jobs in these business are highly specialized occupations.

The ruling bloc is under fire for ramming the bill through the lower chamber. But it still aims to make sure the legislation becomes law by winning approval from the House of Councillors during the current Diet session that ends on Dec. 10.

The governing coalition hopes the immigration law revisions will be brought into force on April 1 to alleviate dissatisfaction in regional areas at labor shortages ahead of nationwide local elections in spring 2019 and an upper house race in summer 2019.

The opposition camp submitted a no-confidence motion against Justice Minister Yamashita to the lower chamber over the handling of the bill on Nov. 27, but the motion was voted down by the ruling bloc.

In explaining the reason for submitting the motion, Kazunori Yamanoi of the Democratic Party for the People told the chamber, "The government is aiming to pass the bill through the Diet at the request of industries in a bid to win the upper house election. The bill could make the acceptance of foreign workers a method of gaining concessions," Yamanoi said.

Criticism of the bill has been voiced even among ruling bloc legislators. "This bill is far from perfect," said Katsuei Hirasawa, a director representing the LDP at the lower house judicial affairs panel.

(Japanese original by Takeshi Wada, City News Department, Akane Imamura, Business News Department, Yusuke Tanabe and Minami Nomaguchi, Political News Department)

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