JAPAN Bill would open door to more foreign workers


Associated Press

TOKYO

Japan is preparing to officially open the door to foreign workers to do unskilled jobs and possibly eventually become citizens.

Lawmakers were to vote early today on government-proposed legislation allowing hundreds of thousands of foreign laborers to live and work in a country that has long resisted accepting outsiders. The bill is expected to pass because of the ruling party’s majority in parliament.

It’s seen as an unavoidable step as the country’s population of about 126 million rapidly ages and shrinks.

Many short-handed industries, especially in the services sector, already rely heavily on foreign “trainees” and language students. The country also selectively grants visas to white-collar professionals, often from the west.

Bringing in foreign laborers is a last resort after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s deeply conservative government tried to meet labor shortages by encouraging more employment of women and older workers and using more robots and automation.

Abe’s latest plan calls for relaxing Japan’s visa requirements in sectors facing severe labor shortages such as construction, nursing, farming, transport and tourism – new categories of jobs to be added to the current list of highly skilled professionals.

The number of foreign workers in Japan has more than doubled since 2000 to nearly 1.3 million last year, out of a working-age population of 67 million.

The fastest-growing group of foreign workers is Vietnamese, many of whom are employed in nursing and in construction as Japan rushes to finish building venues and infrastructure for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Under the legislation, workers will be accepted beginning in April.

Industry groups have urged the government to expand the work visa program so they can legally hire more foreign workers.

But Abe’s traditional political base and opposition groups oppose the change.

Abe has denied Japan is opening the door to immigrants. His right-wing supporters view Japan as a homogenous society and want to keep out outsiders, especially those from other Asian countries, and cite concerns over risks of more crime.

Human-rights activists and lawyers say the legislation has insufficient protections and support for foreign workers and lacks a vision for how Japan might create a more inclusive society that accepts diversity.

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