Photo/IllutrationThai trainees harvest Japanese mustard spinach in Maebashi, Gunma Prefecture. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

The government plans to allow non-Japanese to work in Japan for an additional five years after they complete the foreign trainee program, a system long criticized as a hotbed for labor abuses.

A bill to revise the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Law is expected to be submitted to the extraordinary Diet session in autumn.

Under the revised law, which could take effect in April 2019, a new residence status will be created for those who have completed five years of on-the-job training in Japan, the current time limit under the program.

If they return to their home countries and satisfy certain requirements, they can apply for the tentatively named “specific skill” residence status, enabling them to work for another five years in Japan.

Furthermore, people without the on-the-job training experience can also apply for the new status if they have the skills and qualifications of those who have completed the five-year program, according to the bill.

If “specific skill” workers pass the exam to become certified care workers in Japan, their residence status will be changed to “skilled labor,” a category generally limited to those with professional skills, according to the bill.

That status will allow them to stay longer in Japan and bring family members to the country.

The original purpose of the foreign trainee program was to export techniques and skills overseas when the workers return to their home countries.

The program is also being used to deal with serious labor shortages in such fields as nursing care, agriculture, construction and shipbuilding.

Companies have urged the government to revise the rules of the system and extend the work period.

In a review of the government’s acceptance system for foreign workers in professional and technical fields, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in February said he has no intention of easing Japan’s immigration policy.

But he did say, “We need to proceed with a review (of the foreign trainee system) as soon as possible.”

The number of foreign workers with “trainee” status as of October 2017 was 260,000, or 20 percent of all 1.28 million foreign workers in Japan, according to the labor ministry.

But critics of the program say companies are exploiting the trainees as cheap labor and committing other offenses, such as withholding pay and forcing them to work long hours or in dangerous conditions.

In 2016, the labor ministry oversaw 5,672 workplaces that employed such trainees, up 499 from the previous year. The ministry found that 4,004 workplaces, or about 70 percent of the total, had violated labor-related laws, compared with 3,695 in 2015.

The government will likely put the Justice Ministry’s Immigration Bureau in charge of supervising the workplaces of foreign workers.

Last year, nursing care was added to the applied occupation items under the foreign trainee system, and the nursing-care trainees’ time period in Japan was extended to five years from the previous three years.

Responding to the change, supervising institutions and a punishment system were set up.

However, it is not yet known if the trainees’ working conditions have improved.