Japan’s strict stance on immigration—it has very little illegal immigration and is officially closed for those seeking low-skill labor—has led to worker shortages in many industries. Similar to the United States and other developed countries, Japan has had a difficult time finding workers for low-skill and low-wage jobs in the food, manufacturing, healthcare, and restaurant industries, and these labor shortages have helped put a brake on economic growth:
That is prompting Japan to question some fundamental assumptions about its labor needs. The debate is politically delicate, but changing realities on the ground—in Japan’s factories and fields—are forcing politicians to catch up. Japan’s total foreign-born labor force topped one million for the first time last year, according to the government, lifted in part by people entering the country on visas reserved for technical trainees.
While the government has incredibly strict immigration policies, lawmakers created immigration loopholes, most notably a “trainee” program, to allow hundreds of thousands of low-wage workers from such countries as China, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Cambodia, fill empty jobs. As the Japanese population shrinks, in the last five years the trainee program has doubled in size, to over 200,000, according to official data, and there are plans to expand it. The “trainee” designation is not entirely accurate, since apart from a short period of language study, most trainees “receive little or no instruction that would distinguish them from regular manual laborers,” specialists and participants say. “The system is like calling a crow white,” Yoshio Kimura, a member of Parliament from the governing Liberal Democratic Party who heads the party’s labor committee, tells the New York Times. “What we’re really doing is importing labor.”
Because of decades of low birthrates, the number of working-age Japanese has been falling since the mid-1990s. Official census figures confirmed recently that Japan’s population shrank by nearly a million during the last half-decade. Nationwide unemployment is at three percent. The situation is serious in some industries with three to four positions open in nursing care and construction for every person who applies, according to government surveys.
Despite its popularity and critical function it plays because of the declining population, the trainee program is full of abuse. Nobuya Takai, a lawyer who has represented foreign trainees in labor disputes, explains that since companies do not hire the trainees directly, but through a myriad of government and private-sector middlemen, most trainees end up thousands of dollars in debt to pay broker fees before they even arrive. Moreover, since trainees cannot easily switch jobs, they do not have the option to leave a bad or abusive employer. “They can’t change jobs, and they lose money if they go home,” Takai says. Complaints about unpaid labor are common. Liu Hongmei, a Chinese worker, quit her Shanghai clothing factory job because she was promised wages three times her $430-per-month Chinese wage. “It seemed like a big opportunity,” she says. She arrived in Japan in debt after paying brokers $7,000 to arrange her visa, and found difficult working conditions and lower-than-promised pay. Her bosses, she says, “treat us like slaves.” In 2011, an American State Department report on human trafficking indicated the trainee program had inadequate protections against “debt bondage” and other abuses.
Some argue that Japan’s anti-immigrant stance and worker shortage problems may be a warning for other developed countries as they make possible changes to immigration policy. Present Trump campaigned on calls for a crackdown on undocumented immigrants, saying they “compete directly against vulnerable American workers.” He also promised to cut back legal immigration with new controls to “boost wages and ensure open jobs are offered to American workers first,” although a study last year found, with few caveats, that immigrants do not take Americans’ jobs and in many cases create jobs.
Japanese parliament has approved the creation of a new agency to oversee the trainee program last year, in response to criticism over worker abuse. Additionally lawmakers plan to bring in more workers, and allow more kinds of businesses to hire them, including nursing homes and cleaning companies for offices and hotels. Kimura and some other lawmakers want to establish a formal guest worker system, though it would still not open a path to permanent stays. “If we want economic growth in the future, we need foreigners,” Kimura says.