September 16, 2020 at 15:23 JST
Foreign technical intern trainees prepare frozen squid at a plant in Iwate Prefecture. (Natsuno Otahara)
The COVID-19 crisis has been particularly tough on foreign residents in Japan, some of whom have been fired from work, had their contracts terminated unfairly, and cannot return to their home countries for lack of means or money.
Their children’s education is also being severely affected.
The new Cabinet of Yoshihide Suga must quickly bring them relief and start formulating a comprehensive support policy in keeping with the reality of Japanese society’s heavy dependence on foreigners today.
The number of foreign workers doubled during the second Abe administration, totaling 1.65 million as of the end of October last year and accounting for more than 2 percent of Japan’s workforce.
But the Abe administration held fast to its “no immigration policy,” mainly out of consideration for its right-wing support base. After years of cobbling together revisions to existing systems and reviews of how they are operated, problems are surfacing everywhere.
For example, the technical intern training program, intended to enable participants to return home with the technical skills they acquired in Japan, has become a means for securing cheap foreign labor.
With human rights violations running rampant, such as excessively long working hours and bullying, many foreign trainees fled from their workplaces.
Illegal businesses also brought laborers to Japan, claiming they were students.
The 2018 revision of the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Law should have been a perfect opportunity for Japan to take a hard look at the realities and reshape its immigration policy. However, the government and the ruling coalition forced the revision bill into law before finalizing a policy or budget plan for building an inclusive society.
To bring more foreign workers to Japan, the government created a “specified skill system.” But that was done in haste, and the system had not been sufficiently rounded when the COVID-19 pandemic struck.
While many job losses were concentrated in the manufacturing sector, the number of people coming to Japan on the technical intern training program declined, and labor shortages grew serious in the agricultural and fisheries industries.
The government allowed interns who lost their jobs but still wished to remain in Japan to seek employment in different sectors from where they originally worked under the program.
The nature of the technical intern training program has clearly changed. Now is the time for the government to seriously start scaling back the program or even abolish it, given how it is so replete with inconsistencies.
Foreigners must be treated as fellow members of society, not just as workers. The need for such a policy is greater than ever, now that further gaps in income and education are expected amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Measures, such as helping foreigners learn Japanese and ensuring education for children whose mother tongue is not Japanese, have been carried out mainly by local administrative bodies and private groups. The central government should now become more actively involved.
Also indispensable is the improvement of systems to protect the rights of individuals and support them when they cannot work due to an illness or injury.
Insufficient attention to foreigners’ working conditions will have negative effects on Japanese workers as well. And if foreigners are unable to assimilate into their neighborhoods, arousing antagonism or division among residents, the entire neighborhood would become an uncomfortable place for everyone.
We hope the new Suga administration will handle the immigration policy with utmost care.
--The Asahi Shimbun, Sept. 16
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