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Japan Skirts Immigration Debate by Offering ‘Internships’ to Foreigners

Thursday, 16 April 2015

TOKYO—As its labor force shrinks, Japan is looking abroad to fill jobs like health-care aide, convenience-store manager and construction worker.

But rather than increase immigration, the government is turning back to an “internship” program that the U.S. and others have criticized as fraught with human-rights abuses.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government is preparing to add elder care to the job categories eligible under its so-called Technical Intern Training Program. It also is considering convenience-store work after last year expanding time limits on construction jobs.

The continued use of the program—which limits most workers’ stays to three years—reflects the dilemma facing Japan.

Many economists say the rapidly aging country needs more foreign workers—lots of them, and relatively soon. But few Japanese want to see an influx of unskilled migrant workers, a position the prime minister reflects.

“The Abe administration has no intention to implement” a more-open immigration policy, he told parliament in February, responding to questions from the opposition about extending the internships.

“There are various problems associated with immigration in European countries and we need to analyze these issues,” he added.

The program currently employs about 167,000 foreigners, mostly from China and Vietnam, according to the Justice Ministry. The government describes it as philanthropic, providing training for people who eventually return home with new skills to contribute to their local economies.

It has been generally popular in the region. Vietnam last year signed an agreement with farm cooperatives in Japan Ibaraki prefecture to expand the number of agricultural workers it sends through the program.

However, the U.S. State Department’s 2014 Trafficking in Persons Report described it as a guest-worker program riddled with human-rights abuses, including forced labor and confinement, and lacking effective oversight or protections for workers.

“During the ‘internship,’ migrant workers are placed in jobs that do not teach or develop technical skills,” the report said.

In response to such criticism, the government last month submitted a bill that would create an agency to oversee the training program.

Health ministry officials also say the government will set Japanese-language proficiency requirements and trainee-to-staff ratios to ensure caregiver trainees won’t simply be exploited as low-wage labor.

No one in the Japanese government claims that expanding the program will solve the nation’s long-term labor shortage.

Japan’s population of 127 million will shrink by more than 40 million over the next 45 years, according to the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research.

One of the biggest shortage of workers is in the health-care sector, particularly in elder care. Japan will need an additional 700,000 caregivers for its rapidly growing elderly population over the next decade alone, and will face a shortfall of about 300,000, the government has estimated.

Relatively few Japanese want the jobs, which are physically demanding and pay below-average wages.

Seniors are already feeling the pain. Kazuaki Watanabe, a 71-year-old retired truck driver, suffered a stroke several years ago that left him disabled. With no family to rely on, he lives with six strangers in an unlicensed group home in eastern Tokyo that doesn’t meet government standards for an elder-care facility.

The health ministry says there are 500,000 seniors like Mr. Watanabe on the waiting list for a spot in a government-subsidized home, up by around 25% in just a few years.

‘We need to start a public debate about how Japan will deal with immigration.’

—Hisashi Yamada, chief economist at the Japan Research Institute

The government acknowledges the existence of the unlicensed homes but doesn’t aggressively enforce regulations. Many seniors have nowhere else to go.

“What other choice do I have?” Mr. Watanabe said. “You see those people living in parks and under highway overpasses. I’d be one of them.”

Japan has taken other steps to attract foreign caregivers, providing training for people from Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam under bilateral economic partnership agreements. But those workers are required to eventually pass national certification exams in Japanese.

The success rate is low, and only 203 caregivers are currently working in Japan under the agreements, which date to 2008.

Nafila Diarana Fatonah, a 24-year-old Indonesian caregiver trainee at Shinyokohama Parkside Home in Yokohama, says she is studying for the exam, which requires a big commitment. “It’s not just normal Japanese—we need to learn very specific terms, skills and knowledge,” she said.

Critics say that the training program is an insufficient and ineffective solution to the problem, and that it treats workers as assets to be used and discarded rather than people to be integrated into society. Others say using a program with a history of rights abuses is likely to do more damage to the image of caregiving as an occupation.

Yet most Japanese oppose significant immigration. Foreigners make up a mere 1% to 2% of the population and the government maintains strict restrictions on permanent residency, responding to public fears of crime and social unrest they believe an open immigration policy would bring.

“We need to start a public debate about how Japan will deal with immigration,” said Hisashi Yamada, chief economist at the Japan Research Institute

Source: The Wall Street Journal

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