How Japan risks losing its shine for foreign workers
TOKYO — Concern is growing in Japan that indispensable foreign workers will turn away from its domestic industry in the near future. Although Japan currently is a popular migration destination for them, its attractiveness will weaken if Southeast Asian countries achieve smooth economic development. In addition, competition for manpower with China is likely as the world’s second-largest economy heads toward a decrease in population.
While reluctant to accept immigrants, Japan has a technical intern training program for foreign workers for the official purpose of assisting developing nations. But the on-the-job training system is often subject to questions about human rights. It is uncertain whether Japan will continue to be a favored destination for many foreign workers.
“Inhale and exhale,” said Do Thi Hoai Thu, a 22-year-old Vietnamese in the intern training program, as she led exercises for eight residents at a nursing home in Soka, Saitama Prefecture, when I visited recently. She struggled with speaking Japanese when she came to Japan two years ago but now gives guidance to new workers. “I want to continue working in Japan even after completing the training program,” she said.
Care Support in the city of Saitama, which operates the home and other nursing care facilities, began to hire young people from Vietnam and other countries in 2019. At present, it has 13 foreign workers in the intern program or with a “specified skilled worker” residence status.
But new foreign workers whom Care Support plans to hire have become unable to enter Japan because of the COVID-19 pandemic. “All nursing care facilities are struggling with chronic labor shortages,” a company official said. “We are eager to hire (foreign workers) as early as possible.”
“Since the 1990s, foreign laborers have made up for a plunge in the number of people joining the workforce after graduating from high school,” said Shohei Sugita, a lawyer familiar with issues related to the employment of foreign workers.
Some 180,000 young people joined the labor force after graduating from high school in Japan last year, down 30% from the 600,000 in 1990. The government therefore has expanded its acceptance of unskilled foreign workers while maintaining a closed-door stance on immigrants coming to Japan with the expectation of permanent residence.
Japan created a “permanent resident status” in the revised Immigration Control Law that took effect in 1990, resulting in an increase in the arrival of Japanese Brazilian and other foreign workers.
The intern training program was introduced in 1993 to accept unskilled workers from Asian nations on the grounds that they could contribute to the development of their home countries through the skills they learned in Japan. There were an estimated 600,000 foreign workers, including illegal laborers, in Japan in 1993, almost tripling to 1.72 million by 2020, according to the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare.
Some 378,000 foreign nationals were working in Japan under the intern training program at the end of 2020, roughly double the number five years earlier, although the pandemic has put a halt to the increase.
The specified skills visa status has enabled foreigners to continue working in Japan after completing the intern training program and broadened the business sectors allowed to hire them.
The reliance of the Japanese economy on foreign workers has greatly increased. In the Nagano Prefecture village of Kamikawa, which has a population around 4,000, roughly 700 foreigners work during the busy farming season.
But it is uncertain whether Japan can continue to retain foreign workers in the medium to long term.
The relationship between economic growth and migration goes through a three-stage process in a theory that has drawn strong attention in recent years, Sugita said. First, people moving out from a nation increase in the early stages of its economic development; then level off as it advances further, making other developing nations less attractive; and finally the balance shifts to having more incoming immigrants than those going abroad, as the attractiveness of moving to the developed countries decreases.
When a nation’s gross domestic product tops $2,000 per capita, the number of migrants to emerging countries decreases, and when its GDP reaches $7,000 per capita, migration to advanced economies begins to decline, according to a 2020 report by the International Monetary Fund.
China used to be the biggest supplier of trainees to Japan. Their number began to decrease in 2013, when China’s GDP exceeded $7,000. There were about 63,000 Chinese trainees at the end of 2020, down more than 40% from the peak.
Vietnam, which has replaced China as the largest source of trainees, saw its GDP reach $2,785 per capita in 2020. That will reach $7,000 early in the 2030s if it maintains economic growth at 7%, the average over the past decade. Theoretically, the number of Vietnamese wishing to work in Japan will decrease in about 10 years.
“Specified skilled workers” from Vietnam who came to Japan as trainees work in a food-processing plant in Saitama, near Tokyo. (Photo by Masayuki Terazawa)
Countries such as Myanmar and Nepal are expected to take over Vietnam’s current position in light of such factors as their wage gaps and populations. But there are also many uncertain factors, including political unrest.
“Many people in Asian countries are willing to come to Japan at present,” said Yu Korekawa, head of the International Research and Cooperation Department at the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research. An analysis by Korekawa, using data from American research firm Gallup, found that Japan is the fourth-most-popular destination for migration, after Australia, the U.S. and Canada. Japan is especially popular with highly educated people.
China is expected to greatly affect the future supply of manpower. The number of people between the employable ages of 15 and 64 has been declining since its peak in 2013. Labor shortages have become noticeable at factories and other workplaces. China is shifting to being a net recipient of migrants, the International Organization for Migration said in a 2020 report.
Japan will begin to vie with China for foreign workers after 2025 if not earlier, Sugita said.
The intern training program has often been criticized for a variety of abuses, including unpaid wages, violence and sexual harassment. Trainees have voiced complaints about unfair work terms such as meager overtime pay of 300 yen ($2.73) per hour and only a few days off per year.
In its annual human trafficking report, the U.S. Department of State criticized the program as manipulating foreign workers. Its 2021 report said foreign workers are bound by debt and forced to work. In order to win the international competition for manpower, experts suggest, Japan needs to show that human rights are protected in its labor market and also improve work terms, including wages.
Challenges also lie in workers’ heavy debt burdens and in the public’s low level of support.
Thousands of foreign trainees under the intern program flee their jobs every year as a result of high commissions they pay to brokers and other arrangers of their visits to Japan.
The Vietnamese government said in a report in March that trainees each pay a commission of $7,000 to $8,000 before traveling to Japan. They usually have to borrow money and pay off the debt while working in Japan.
But there are cases in which they find their wages in Japan are lower than expected or they are subjected to violence at work. Trainees can’t change jobs, due to the nature of the program, but they remain in debt if they quit and return home. Left without a choice, they run away. Missing trainees surpassed 9,000 in 2018.
“There is no end to cases in which trainees are conned by brokers after fleeing and find no place to go,” said Yoshihisa Saito, an associate professor at Kobe University involved in supporting foreign nationals in the intern training program. “Former trainees have no income despite expectations from their families. Urged to make loan repayments, some of them lose due judgment and end up committing crimes such as shoplifting.”
The United Nations’ sustainable development goals include to “facilitate orderly, safe, regular and responsible migration and mobility of people.” But Japan offers scant public support for young foreign workers who do not understand the language well and have no place to go. They often seek help from private support organizations via social networking sites.
Experts say that if Japan wants to continue to attract foreign trainees, it must work with source countries to settle the problem of high commissions, and also create domestic conditions enabling foreign nationals to work with a sense of security.