A Vietnamese intern working at a factory in Japan. (Photo: Nikkei Asian Review)

Hanoi (VNS/VNA)
- With a rapidly aging population and declining fertility, Japan had to adopt a more open-door approach towards foreign workers to staff its labour-strapped industries, with Vietnamese workers among the fastest growing groups.

The country’s previously strict approach to immigration changed in June as the Council on Economic and Fiscal Policy, led by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, officially announced a set of measures to increase the flow of labour to the country, including the creation of “a new visa status for non-professional foreign labourers,” the Japan Times reported.

New policies would allow apprentices to remain in Japan for a maximum five additional years under a labour visa after their standard three-year training. The Japanese Government said it was also considering letting these visa-holders stay in Japan indefinitely if they pass language proficiency and technical skills tests during their five-year sojourn.

In a bid to offset a serious dearth of human resources in labour-intensive fields, such as farming, construction, shipbuilding, and elderly care, Japan wants to bring in as many as 500,000 overseas workers by 2025.

To reach this goal, the country has also relaxed its demands for language proficiency for these low-skilled jobs – instead of N4 (the second lowest level in the Japanese proficiency tests), now workers are only required to understand basic sentences and utterances.

It is estimated that by April next year, the respective association of each trade – farming, construction, caretakers, hospitality and shipbuilding – would complete their own specialised exam.

According to Nguyen Gia Liem, deputy head of Vietnam’s Centre of Overseas Labour (COLab) under the Ministry of Labour, Invalids and Social Affairs, in 2015, there were 27,010 Vietnamese workers sent to Japan, but in just two years, the number doubled to 54,504 in 2017.

Currently, there are about 126,000 Vietnamese trainees and apprentices working in Japan, making Japan one of the main recipients of Vietnamese ‘exported’ labourers.

Liem told Nong thon ngay nay (Countryside Today) newspaper that while demands for Vietnamese workers from markets like the Republic of Korea or Taiwan remain stable, Japan’s demands are growing “by the day, in increasingly diverse sectors.”

Starting from the beginning of August, the minimum salary for overseas workers in Japan has reportedly risen from JPY789/hour to JPY823/hour, which makes Japan an even more attractive destination for Vietnamese workers.

“Aside from demand for low-skilled labour, Japan has plenty of positions for skilled and highly trained technicians and engineers in special programmes with attractive benefits,” he said.

“The Japanese labour market will be quite lively in the future, especially given that the country needs a large amount of manpower to prepare infrastructure and services for the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo,” he said.

The country is also lifting its long-held ban on foreign farmers in ‘national strategic areas’ such as Niigata, Kyoto and Aichi prefectures, however, the foreign farmers must possess certain levels of experience and practical knowledge, in addition to a command of Japanese.

Niiaga city, for example, is also asking for manpower in hospitality, comic or manga, and beauty industries.

While agreeing that Japan’s new policy is a golden opportunity, Pham Do Nhat Tan, Vice Chairman of the Government agency Vietnam Association of Manpower Supply (VAMAS), said that the labour agencies, businesses and Vietnamese workers themselves need to “overcome long-standing issues.”

“We need to remember that Japan’s policy is relaxed to workers from all foreign countries, which means competition would be quite stiff. Vietnamese workers need to equip themselves with fair command of Japanese and English, technical skills, and most importantly, labour discipline,” Tan said.

Doaan Mau Diep, deputy labour minister, said at the beginning of June this year, the ministry has permitted six businesses in northern Vietnam to pilot recruitment of caretakers and nurses to be sent to Japan.

The ministry is currently negotiating to reduce the language proficiency requirements and increase benefits for Vietnamese to a level equal to native workers.

After the negotiations concluded at the end of this month, the ministry would expand the permissions to businesses in the south.

“Vietnam is ready and able to supply manpower in farming, hotel services or high-rise building maintenance jobs. In addition, we agreed to let Japan’s human resource centres cooperate with Vietnamese counterparts to recruit skilled Vietnamese IT technicians,” deputy minister Diep said.

Vietnamese nurse trainees, for example, were particularly preferred by the Japanese since the rate of training course graduation reached as high as 80-90 percent.

However, several challenges stymied the departure of Vietnamese trainees to Japan – workers’ illegal residence and legal infractions hurt the Vietnamese reputation, in addition to risks of workers’ breaking contracts (although this last issue is partly due to the arduous and unhygienic nature of the caretaking jobs, both Vietnamese and Japanese authorities have admitted).

VAMAS’ Tan also wanted the labour ministry to focus more resources into monitoring and inspecting the labour export agencies, to make sure that duplicitous ones are weeded out.

COLab recently warned against the scams, where some individuals and agencies claimed they are qualified ‘intermediaries’ that can help workers go to Japan via Japan’s International Manpower Development Organisation (IM Japan) programme.

Pham Thi Ngoc Lan, deputy head of COLab, said the centre was the singular Government agency co-operating with IM Japan to send workers to Japan and it was not in collaboration with any private labour agencies.-VNS/VNA