Companies tepid on new foreign worker system in Japan

By TORU ASAMI AND AKI NAKAMURA | Yomiuri Shimbun | Published: July 6, 2019

Japan has so far made little progress in accepting more foreign workers. As of the end of June, there had been 320 applications for the new "specified skilled worker" residence status established under the revised Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Law, which took effect on April 1. Of that number, only 20 applicants had been granted the status.

This is far from the government's target of accepting up to 47,550 foreign workers this fiscal year. Some of the factors contributing to this situation are a lack of preparation and a cautious attitude among companies.

"The residence status was created hastily, so we need more time for preparation. There are some fields for which we can't conduct skills tests soon," said an official of the Immigration Services Agency.

The revised legislation was enacted into law in December last year. In the Diet, opposition parties argued that deliberations were insufficient, as the revisions were made hastily. However, the government pushed the early enactment of the revised law through, in an effort to alleviate serious labor shortages.

However, the skills tests conducted so far have been limited to three fields: nursing care, accommodation and food service. Those who have completed technical intern training in Japan can switch to the new status without taking the tests, but these three fields are newly designated and do not have such "status switchers."

The number of foreign workers who have passed the tests stands at 793. In the accommodation sector, which is expected to take in up to 1,050 foreign workers, 280 people passed the tests.

A staffing agency in Tokyo for the lodging industry has been unable to reach these successful test-takers. "We've received requests from companies, but we can't introduce [personnel] given the current situation in which a relatively small number of people have passed the tests," an official of the staff agency said.

Moves to increase the number of foreign workers have been slower in the other 11 fields, which expect an influx of foreign technical trainees after switching their status to the new one. Skills tests are likely to be conducted mainly outside Japan from this autumn, but specific dates have yet to be decided.

"Just to confirm, cars are driven on the left in Japan. Please be careful." Shunsuke Kawada, the 35-year-old vice president of Asia Consulting, a consulting firm on labor affairs in Aichi Prefecture, said this to two Indonesian men via internet videophone.

The two men are former technical interns who are preparing to work at an automobile parts maker with the new status. In May, Asia Consulting became one of the registered support organizations that provide support for foreign residents with the new status. At the request of the auto parts maker, the consulting firm explained to the two men such things as labor conditions and Japanese traffic rules.

Before applying for the status, foreign workers are required to sign employment contracts with companies and undergo employer-provided orientation for about three hours. Offering support, including such orientation, is particularly difficult for small and midsize companies. Registered support organizations like Asia Consulting are expected to play a complementary role.

The consulting firm has received requests to provide such support for about 250 people, including current and former technical interns, but these people have yet to file applications for the new status.

According to the Immigration Services Agency, applicants are required to prepare about 20 different documents in addition to taking the orientation. "Preparations take a considerable amount of time for each applicant," Kawada said.

Many companies have taken a wait-and-see stance regarding the new system.

A lot of foreign technical interns work for minimum wage, but foreign workers with the new status are paid "at least as mush as Japanese workers." If companies are unable to provide support on their own, they have to pay commission fees to support entities. The amount of the fees is not set legally, and is determined between companies and support organizations.

Hakujukai, a Tokyo-based social welfare corporation that operates three special elderly nursing homes in the Kanto region, has employed five Vietnamese trainees, but is not considering shifting their status to the new one at this stage.

"We don't know the ordinary amount of commission fees paid to a support entity. That would run up costs," a Hakujukai official said.

Unlike technical interns, foreign workers with the new status are allowed to change jobs within the same sector.

B: Crew Esse Co., a cleaning management company in Yamaguchi where 19 Vietnamese trainees work, intends to maintain a wait-and-see stance for the time being. "If they move to other companies with better conditions, the expenditures we've made will be for nothing," said Yoshiyuki Kanazawa, an executive of the company.

Masao Manjome, an associate professor at Tokai University who specializes in labor issues relating to foreign workers, said: "For employers, the new system has many unknown aspects, such as commission fees for support organizations and the risk of foreign workers changing jobs. Especially for small and midsize companies, it is difficult to respond to the changes swiftly."

"The acceptance of foreign workers could grow at a sluggish pace for a while, but if use of the system increases gradually, the number of companies with a wait-and-see attitude will decline," he added.

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