UPDATE1: Japan Diet set to pass bill to bring in more foreign workers

Japan Economic Newswire |

Japan's ruling parties aim to pass through parliament on Friday a bill to allow more foreign workers in labor-hungry sectors, even as concerns remain that the plan lacks detail and may not ensure proper working conditions.

While opposition parties are making last-ditch efforts to block the passage of the bill to revise the immigration control law, ruling parties are determined to push it through an upper house committee and then through the upper house at a plenary vote later in the day.

Enactment would pave the way for Japan to issue visas to blue-collar laborers for the first time, in a major policy shift for a country that has basically granted working visas only to people with high levels of professional knowledge and skills such as doctors, lawyers and teachers.

The government aims to launch the new visa system in April next year. It is expected to affect 14 sectors identified as suffering from labor shortages amid an aging population and falling birthrate, such as nursing care, construction and farming.

But opposition parties have criticized the bill for failing to specify what kinds of jobs foreign workers would engage in and for giving the government too much freedom to decide details later through ministerial ordinances.

They have also questioned whether Japan is fully prepared to undergo such a major change, touching on the already poor treatment of foreigners who have come to take part in the country's technical intern program. The program is intended to transfer skills to developing countries, but has been criticized as being a cover for companies to import cheap labor.

The bill passed the House of Representatives last Tuesday, despite strong resistance from opposition parties, and the political wrangling has continued in the House of Councillors.

To stop the Judicial Affairs Committee Chairman Shinichi Yokoyama from moving to hold a vote for the bill, opposition parties submitted a resolution demanding his dismissal. But it was voted down by the majority of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and its junior coalition partner Komeito party on Friday morning.

Kiyomi Tsujimoto, the Diet affairs chief of the main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, said at a meeting with senior members of other opposition parties, "Let's unite toward the goal of scrapping the bill."

The opposition parties also submitted a no-confidence motion against Justice Minister Takashi Yamashita, saying that he has not "faithfully" responded to questions even though the bill could bring about major change to people's daily lives.

Under the new visa system, two resident statuses will be created -- the No. 1 type for people to engage in work that requires a certain level of knowledge and experience, and the No. 2 type for work that needs higher-level skills.

To apply for the No. 1 type visa, valid for up to five years, people will have to pass Japanese-language and technical exams. Those who have gone through the existing technical intern program for more than three years can obtain the status without sitting the tests, and the government expects many interns to apply for this visa.

But the visa holders will not be allowed to bring their family members to Japan, which some critics see as a human rights issue.

The No. 2 type visa sets a higher hurdle, with applicants required to pass a high-level skill test. But workers will be allowed to bring their family members and the number of visa renewals is not limited, opening up the possibility for them to live permanently in Japan.

The No. 1 type visa is available for 14 sectors. As for the No. 2 type, the government has planned to apply it to two business fields -- construction and shipbuilding -- but tests may not be held for the time being as not so many applicants are expected.

The government has said it estimates Japan will accept up to 47,550 foreign workers in the first year under the No. 1 type visa and up to 345,150 over five years, including 60,000 for the nursing care business.

The government will upgrade the Justice Ministry's Immigration Bureau to an agency to strengthen its functions to deal with the possible influx of foreigners.

The number of foreigners working in Japan has been on the rise, hitting a record high 1.28 million as of October last year, according to government data.

Foreign nationals with Japanese ancestry and permanent residents made up the largest portion of the total foreign workforce at around 459,000, followed by 297,000 students and others who are allowed to work part-time such as at convenience stores, and 258,000 technical interns.

Political experts say Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is rushing to enact the legislation before key elections next year, hoping that the move will be welcomed not just by the business community but also in regional areas struggling with labor shortages.

==Kyodo

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