Japan passes controversial new immigration bill to attract foreign workers

TOKYO —  Japan’s parliament passed an immigration law Saturday that aims to attract 345,000 foreign workers over the next five years, seeking to plug gaps in the country’s rapidly shrinking and aging workforce.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government forced through the law despite protests from opposition parties that argued the legislation was vague and hastily drawn up. Critics also claim it fails to address the question of social inclusion and rights for foreign workers.

But the law is driven by some inescapable demographic pressures. The fertility rate has fallen to 1.4 children per women, far below the replacement rate of 2.1, while the population is already dropping by about 400,000 people a year.

That places a significant burden on Japan’s economy, with fewer taxpayers and more dependents. The proportion of people over 65 years old has already risen to 28 percent — one of the highest in the world.

Even with the new measures, Japan keeps one of the tightest reins on immigration among industrialized nations. Yet Abe’s government — like others in the West — must increasingly grapple with an economic future that depends on bolstering the workforce from the outside.

Japan’s upper house of parliament passed the law by 161 votes to 76 just after 4 a.m. Saturday, after a day when the opposition parties raised unsuccessful blocking motions. It followed a vote in the lower chamber last week, with Abe’s ruling coalition enjoying large majorities in both houses. It will come into effect next April.

The legislation is designed to attract “semiskilled workers” across a range of industries where shortages are most severe, including construction, the hotel industry, cleaning and elderly care. 

They will be allowed in on an initial five-year visa, with the possibility to then qualify for a second type of visa for an additional five-year period.

To address concerns that the immigrants would depress wages for Japanese workers, the new law stipulates they must be paid the same as their Japanese peers. But many other details — including rules to prevent labor abuses — remain to be fleshed out and are due to be specified in a Justice Ministry ordinance before the end of the year.

“It is clear to everyone that the immigration bill designed to accept more foreign workers is a slipshod job far from perfection,” the Mainichi newspaper wrote in an editorial, “but the incredibly arrogant government and the ruling camp have blocked their ears to criticism and even constructive proposals on the legislation.”

The country’s weak opposition has found new life in the immigration debate, with critics of the bill arguing Japan first needed to overhaul or abolish an existing scheme under which around 250,000 foreigners work in Japan.

The program is supposed to bring in workers from other Asian countries to gain skills in Japan. In practice, critics say, workers are paid little, work incredibly long hours, and get little or no training.

Opposition politicians forced the Justice Ministry to reveal this week that 63 foreign workers died while on this scheme between 2016 and 2018, including through accidents or suicide.

Akira Nagatsuma of the opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan argued the new law could damage Japan’s global image.

“The system is not in place to accept foreigners as human beings,” he wrote in an op-ed. “How do we prepare for their living? How do we protect their rights as workers? What about their social welfare? What about their housing? What about their Japanese language education? None of these have been dealt with.”

 Iki Tanaka, who educates the children of foreign workers at the YSC Global School in the western Tokyo suburb of Fussa, said the issue of social inclusion — starting with language education — cannot be ignored.

“In a few years, many people may come to realize: ‘without us noticing, the number of foreigners has grown so much,’” she said. “We may face a situation where a series of troubles are happening here and there that we did not anticipate. That’s what I am very worried about.” 

Unlike entrants on the intern training scheme, the new workers will be allowed to choose jobs and switch employers once inside Japan. That has sparked concerns that they may shun sparsely populated rural areas, where wages are lower but needs are greater, and instead gravitate to the crowded cities.

Opinion polls show most Japanese either favor inviting in more foreign workers or believe the country has no choice given the labor shortage. But many also view the current law as too rushed.

The law is an attempt to attract more workers to Japan while still trying to make it very tough for them to settle permanently. But some experts say it doesn’t do enough to address the yawning labor gap.

Broadcaster NHK said Germany, Korea and Taiwan are all competing with Japan to attract elderly care workers from Vietnam, with many people preferring the pay and conditions offered elsewhere.