THE number of foreign workers in Japan has doubled in the last year, after a government push to hire from overseas in a bid to tackle the country’s dire labour shortages.
According to official government figures released Friday, there were 1.46 million foreign workers in Japan, 14.2 percent higher than the previous year. The number has tripled from 486,000 in 2008 to reach the current record high.
Workers from China made up the highest proportion of newcomers with nearly 390,000 in Japan as of October 2018. This was up 4.5 percent from the previous year. Vietnam came in second with 317,000, up 32 percent from 2017. And the Philippines supplied the third most, with 164,000.
The biggest industry for foreign workers was manufacturing with 30 percent, followed by retail, and hospitality.
According to the Japan Times, the labour ministry attributed the rise to the government’s policy of promoting the hiring of highly skilled workers, students as part-timers, and trainees from developing countries under its technical intern programme.
Despite the steep rise in immigration, foreign workers still constitute only 2 percent of Japan’s total workforce. But this looks set to rise significantly in the coming years following changes to immigration laws.
In December, Japan eased visa restrictions to be able to accept more foreigners in 2019. The changes come into force in April.
The new rule allows more workers to take up jobs in sectors, such as construction, farming and nursing, and gives them a pathway to permanent residency. The scheme is aimed at tackling Japan’s labour shortage, brought on by a low birth rate and an ageing population.
Unemployment is at its lowest level since the early 1990s, and last year job availability rose to its highest in 44 years, with 150 jobs open to every 100 people seeking work.
The government estimates more than 345,00 foreigners will enter the country in the next five years to work in sectors facing a labour crunch.
The new law has raised concerns of exploitation as employers use the change to secure cheap labour in sub-standard conditions.
A labour ministry investigation found that of the 6,000 firms that currently hire a total of 260,000 technical trainees, about 70 percent had broken labour regulations on illegal and unpaid overtime.
On Friday, Mitsubishi Motors, Panasonic and two other companies were forced to cancel their technical internships after they were found to have left the foreign workers in charge of work they were not authorised to carry out under the programme.
The new push to hire from outside of Japan is a big turnaround in the government’s approach to immigration. The country has historically only granted working visas for highly skilled people with professional training, such as doctors and teachers.