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Japan’s foreign trainee program success lies in the details

Lack of transparency often leads to misunderstandings and misuse of government programs
A farmer works a combine as he harvests rice at Kikukamachi Yatani in Kumamoto prefecture on Oct. 5, 2019. Japan seeks overseas working hands for the agriculture and manufacturing sectors under the foreign technical intern program and starting in 2027 will allow them to switch jobs within their industry and to seek permanent residency.

A farmer works a combine as he harvests rice at Kikukamachi Yatani in Kumamoto prefecture on Oct. 5, 2019. Japan seeks overseas working hands for the agriculture and manufacturing sectors under the foreign technical intern program and starting in 2027 will allow them to switch jobs within their industry and to seek permanent residency. (Photo: AFP)

Published: March 19, 2024 04:02 AM GMT
Updated: March 19, 2024 05:21 AM GMT

Japan's cabinet has passed legislation to overhaul its criticized foreign trainee program, aiming to encourage foreign workers to stay longer by focusing on skill development and rights protection.

Set to launch in 2027, this initiative will enable trainees to switch jobs within their industry, under certain conditions, to foster a pathway to permanent residency.

Justice Minister Ryuji Koizumi highlighted the reform's goal to prevent human rights abuses and promote an inclusive society by nurturing foreign talent.

The existing Technical Intern Training Program, which began in 1993, has faced scrutiny for years for being exploited as a means to import cheap labor, leading to instances of unpaid wages and harassment.

The revised program intends to address these issues by allowing foreign workers with sufficient experience, skills, and Japanese proficiency to move between jobs in the same sector, albeit with restrictions in certain industries to prevent mass urban migration.

Under the new system, supervisory organizations will be required to undergo external audits, and the program will aim to prepare trainees for a skilled worker system that could lead to permanent residency.

"It doesn't specify the mechanisms to protect workers from potential exploitation or to ensure fair treatment"

Additionally, the revision includes measures to revoke permanent residency for those failing to comply with tax and social insurance obligations.

As of the latest data available, Japan had around 351,788 foreign technical trainees under its Technical Intern Training Program. The largest groups of foreign workers in Japan come from Vietnam, accounting for 26.2 percent or 453,344 individuals, followed by Chinese nationals at 23.0 percent or 397,084, and Filipinos at 11.1 percent or 191,083.

These workers are distributed across various prefectures, with Tokyo hosting the most at 485,382, Aichi prefecture with 177,769, and Osaka with 111,862. These numbers make it clear about the significant contribution of foreign trainees to the Japanese labor force, as well as the diverse origins of these workers.

But even the reformed foreign trainee program involves examining potential challenges and implications from various perspectives.

While the program aims to allow trainees to switch workplaces, it doesn't specify the mechanisms to protect workers from potential exploitation or to ensure fair treatment across industries.

Without strict oversight, there's a risk that employers might still exploit foreign workers under the usual guise of “training.”

"Successful integration requires comprehensive support beyond the workplace"

The program’s focus on skill development and a path to permanent residency is commendable, but it may overlook the broader integration challenges faced by foreign workers, such as language barriers, cultural assimilation, and access to social services.

Successful integration requires comprehensive support beyond the workplace.

Take for example what happened in Kawaguchi and the neighboring city of Warabi, just north of Tokyo, during Covid. Even though there's an estimated Kurdish population of 2,000 the local municipal authorities had records of only about 500 of these individuals who have officially registered as residents.

The difficulty in tracking the larger Kurdish community is compounded by the fact that many Kurds do not have formal residency status. Instead, they are on temporary release from the Immigration Services Agency, which complicates efforts to locate them, say for vaccination.

While the program addresses immediate labor shortages due to Japan's aging population, it might not offer a long-term solution to the underlying demographic challenges.

Relying on foreign workers without addressing the broader issues of low birth rates and an aging society could postpone necessary structural reforms such as the mechanization of an industry that is likely to become self-sufficient in the years to come with far fewer manual jobs than today.

A more well-adjusted and sustainable approach would include investing in technology and upskilling the domestic workforce alongside the integration of foreign labor.

The program’s success hinges on its implementation details, which have not been fully disclosed.

Clarity regarding the conditions under which trainees can switch jobs, the specific rights protections in place, and the pathway to permanent residency is crucial. Lack of transparency is what always leads to misunderstandings and misuse of any government program.

*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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