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Debate intensifies over more foreign workers - Japanese Govt forced to accept manilas demand to accept Nurses

Debate intensifies over more foreign workers

Hiroaki Matsunagaand?C Soichiro Kuboniwa / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff Writers

The debate over whether to accept more workers from abroad is heating up, as concerns grow over how a predicted labor shortage and aging society will affect the economy.

And though the government is considering expanding the number of foreign workers allowed into the country, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party remains sharply divided over the issue.

A government council for promoting regulatory reform and opening work to the private sector, chaired by Orix Corp. Chairman Yoshihiko Miyauchi, clashed with the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry over the former's interim report released July 31.

The disagreement arose over a phrase contained in the interim report suggesting the government should consider accepting foreign workers in the fields of social welfare and nursing care service.

The ministry strongly opposed the proposal, with one official saying, "Labor supply in the nursing care field already exceeds demand. Accepting foreign workers will lead to a loss of employment opportunities and deterioration of working conditions for [Japanese] young people and women."

But the council flatly rejected these arguments, saying there would be no such impact on employment prospects or conditions.

The LDP's special committee on foreign workers, chaired by Yoshio Kimura, has also recently come out in support of expanding the foreign worker pool, urging the government to adjust its policy if foreign workers meet certain skill and language requirements.

However some LDP lawmakers attending the committee's session opposed such moves.

One LDP member said, "Why does the nation accept foreign workers even though the unemployment rate among Japanese young people is high?" Another said, "We have to learn a lesson from precedents in Germany and France [where foreign workers have created social problems]".

Kimura and other executive members of the committee rejected this argument, explaining foreign workers would not be allowed to settle permanently.

But a former Cabinet minister was unmoved by this reassurance, saying, "The government should only start debating whether to accept foreign workers after a crime prevention system is established. Unless we handle the issue very carefully, it will create problems for the future."

Many LDP members also feel that accepting a large number of foreign workers could affect certain aspects of Japanese culture.

The continued debate makes it unclear whether the committee's proposals will ultimately become LDP policy.

The debates on whether to accept more foreign workers has been driven largely by the business community.

In April 2004, the Japan Business Federation demanded that the government drastically review the foreign worker system, including a reexamination of the categories covering residency status for foreign nationals.

Hiroshi Okuda, then chairman of the business lobby, repeatedly urged expansion of the number of foreign workers, including at meetings of the government's Council on Fiscal and Economic Policy.

Businesses are enthusiastic about accepting more foreign workers, especially as Japan has been urged to accept workers by other countries in an increasing number of negotiations over Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs).

In fact, during talks with the Philippines over an EPA, the government was forced to accept Manila's demand that Philippine nursing staff be allowed to work in Japan, under certain conditions.

The decline in the number of young people is one of the reasons for a push to increase the pool of foreign workers. Indeed, according to the ministry's estimate, by 2015 Japan's labor force may have fallen by up to 4.1 million compared to 2004.

If this happens, the nation's potential annual economic growth rate is expected to fall to just 0.7 percent in real terms, meaning current living standards would be unsustainable without an expansion in the labor force.

There are currently strict limits on the entry of foreign workers without specific professional skills, while those with expertise in such fields as research and education gain easier entry.

However, the government's Basic Policy, which the Council on Economic and Fiscal Policy decided on July 7, took into consideration pleas from the business sector.

The policy included a passage stating the government would consider accepting foreign workers in fields not viewed as professional or highly skilled, while paying close attention to potential problems.

As a compromise between businesses wanting more foreign workers, and opponents fearing social problems stemming from an influx of non-Japanese, the ministry is considering expanding the number of job categories in which foreign workers can be accepted as trainees.

The trainee system was set up in 1993, with the intention of enhancing human resources in developing countries by enabling foreign workers to acquire job skills and knowledge while working in Japan. Overseas workers are accepted in 114 types of work in 62 job categories, such as raising pigs and metal painting.

Workers on the scheme can work for up to a year as trainees, while those who are recognized as having acquired certain job skills are allowed to work as advanced trainees for a further two years.

But in reality, the system has sometimes functioned as a source of labor for companies who could not attract Japanese workers due to wage and other working conditions.

The number of foreign workers making use of the system began rapidly increasing in fiscal 2004, and the number of new applicants exceeded 30,000 in fiscal 2005.

The ministry believes that demand for foreign workers will continue to rise and plans to expand their numbers on the condition that they do not settle in Japan and eventually return to their home country.

The ministry also plans to tighten controls on foreign workers and their employers by visiting workplaces.


Foreign workers cluster together

According to the Justice Ministry, there were 2,011,555 registered foreign residents as of the end of 2005, surpassing the 2 million mark for the first time. The percentage of foreign residents as a proportion of the population stood at 1.57 percent.

Foreign residents, who hail from 186 countries and regions, tend to be concentrated in specific areas--about 70 percent of them live in Tokyo, Osaka and eight other prefectures.

The majority of foreign residents, 29.8 percent, are from South Korea or are descendants of those who came from the Korean Peninsula during the prewar era.

They are followed by Chinese, 25.8 percent; Brazilians, 15 percent; Filipinos, 9.3 percent; Peruvians, 2.9 percent; and Americans, 2.5 percent.

The Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Law limits to 27 the number of categories of resident status for foreigners.

The government hopes to increase the number of foreign workers in 14 of the 27 categories, including teaching and research.

The number of illegal overstayers, who did not return after their visa expired or entered Japan illegally in the first place, is estimated to be about 220,000.


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