Apr 27, 2016

    Japan to tackle touchy topic of foreign workers


    DESPERATELY seeking an antidote to a rapidly ageing population, Japanese policymakers are exploring ways to bring in more foreign workers without calling it an "immigration policy".

    Immigration is a touchy subject in a land where conservatives prize cultural homogeneity and politicians fear losing votes from workers worried about job safety.

    But a tight labour market and ever-shrinking workforce are making Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's policy team and lawmakers consider the politically controversial option.

    A ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) panel is likely to propose this week expanding the types of jobs open to foreign workers, who are expected to top a million this year.

    "Domestically, there is a big allergy. As a politician, one must be aware of that," Takeshi Noda, an adviser to the LDP panel, told Reuters.

    And while Japan is not caught up in the mass migration crisis afflicting Europe, the controversies in other regions do colour the way the Japanese think about immigration.

    LDP lawmakers floated immigration proposals almost a decade ago but those came to naught.

    An economic uptick since Mr Abe took office in December 2012, rebuilding after the 2011 tsunami and a construction boom ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, has pushed labour demand to its highest in 24 years.

    That has helped boost foreign worker numbers by 40 per cent since 2013, with the Chinese accounting for more than one-third, followed by Vietnamese, Filipinos and Brazilians.

    But visa conditions largely barring unskilled workers mean foreigners still make up only about 1.4 per cent of the workforce.

    So far, measures to attract more foreign workers have focused on easing entry for highly skilled professionals and expanding a "trainee" system that was designed to share technology with developing countries.

    Now, however, the LDP panel looks set to go further by proposing foreigners be accepted in other sectors that face shortages, such as nursing and farming.