Please view the main text area of the page by skipping the main menu.

S. Korean, Taiwan examples show challenges Japan will face over foreign laborers

Workers from Southeast Asian countries chat with their friends at Taipei Station on Dec. 2, 2018. (Mainichi/Shizuya Fukuoka)

SEOUL/TAIPEI/TOKYO -- Problems involving South Korea and Taiwan proactively accepting foreign workers have shed light on the challenges Japan will face when it opens its doors further to help alleviate labor shortages by amending the immigration law.

The bill to revise the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act 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.

South Korea and Taiwan's respective systems can be partially appreciated as examples that Japan can follow. Still, their programs are the same as one being deliberated in Japan's Diet in that they are aimed solely at alleviating domestic labor shortages.

Critics have pointed out that there are problems involving the protection of foreign workers' rights in South Korea and Taiwan.

--- South Korean system advanced, but has limits

In 2004, South Korea introduced an employment permission system to accept foreigners from 16 countries as menial laborers in five industries including the manufacturing and agricultural sectors.

Alam Mohammad Jahangir, 31, a Bangladesh national, came to South Korea in 2013 under the system, and began working at a car parts factory in Siheung, Gyeonggi province. He worked from 8:30 a.m. to around 11 p.m., earning up to some 3 million won, or 300,000 yen, a month.

But in June 2016, he got his right hand caught in a pressing machine at the plant, losing three of his fingers.

He consequently took about a six-month's leave of absence. His injuries were recognized as a work-related accident, but he then suffered injuries to his left hand in August 2017. He subsequently filed a complaint against his employer over a dispute about insurance benefit payments to cover his treatment.

Although Jahangir wants to continue working in South Korea, he is worried that his dispute with his employer could adversely affect his chances of finding a new job in the country.

The South Korean government is involved in the process of accepting foreign workers under the employment permission system to prevent brokers from charging large commissions. The system was appreciated as a measure to protect foreign workers' rights and won a U.N. Public Service Award.

However, Sok Won-jong, head of the Sungdong Migrant Workers Center, points out that there are many cases where employers deceive foreign workers. Many such workers have been forced to work for long hours or in a dangerous environment or do not receive proper wages.

South Korea previously had an industrial training system modeled after Japan's technical trainee system. However, Seoul changed to the current employment permission system because the old program was criticized as being a hotbed for illegal residency and causing human rights problems.

Since the current system was introduced, however, the number of those staying illegally in South Korea sharply increased from about 209,000 at the end of 2016 to approximately 353,000 in late October this year.

--- Taiwan fighting illegal labor

In Taiwan, approximately 700,000 people from six Southeast Asian countries including Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam, are working in the nursing care, manufacturing, construction and other industrial sectors.

Jestoni Perez, 29, came to Taiwan after paying some 120,000 yen to a broker in his home country of the Philippines and another 180,000 yen to a Taiwanese broker. Perez decided on the move to earn money to cover the living expenses of his 10 siblings.

Taiwanese authorities ban the acceptance of brokerage commissions from foreign workers, but brokers collect such commissions under the pretext of "service charges."

Perez worked at an ice manufacturing plant, earning about Taiwanese $22,000, or about 80,000 yen, a month. He kept his living expenses to a minimum and managed to send half of his monthly earnings to his parents in his home country.

However, his employer allowed him to take only one day off a month and did not pay him any overtime allowances, practices that constituted a violation of Taiwanese labor laws that also apply to foreign workers.

Perez quit his job but he needs consent from his former employer to find a new position because Taiwan issues working visas based on applicants' employment contracts. Unless he finds a new job within several months, he will be forced to go home.

Chen Hsiu-Lien, a researcher at the Taipei-based Taiwan International Workers' Association, points out that employers are given too much power and criticizes Taiwanese authorities for failing to pay attention to workers' requests.

Taiwan began to accept a large number of foreign workers in 1992. However, Taiwanese authorities do not allow foreign workers, except for highly professional workers and the spouses of Taiwanese people, to live permanently there or to be accompanied by their spouses and children.

Taiwan cannot maintain its society without relying on foreign workers, but there are numerous problems with foreign workers' labor conditions and human rights issues.

--- Japan to crack down on malicious brokers

In Japan, foreigners who have undergone occupation training under the Technical Intern Training System have effectively made up for personnel shortages in menial labor. However, critics have pointed out problems with the system such as employers failing to pay wages and brokers collecting large deposits.

The new system would guarantee that foreign workers receive the same level of pay as their Japanese counterparts. Moreover, the government will stipulate in a Justice Ministry order that Japan will not accept foreign workers if deposits have been collected from workers or relatives in order to prevent the involvement of brokers.

(Japanese original by Chiharu Shibue, Seoul Bureau, Shizuya Fukuoka, Taipei Bureau, and Takeshi Wada, City News Department)

Also in The Mainichi

The Mainichi on social media