By Simon Denyer and Akiko Kashiwagi (The Washington Post)
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.
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.
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.