Japan opens door to temporary foreign workers

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Trend is a little-noticed effect of Abenomics stimulus


Clerking in a convenience store is a rite of passage for many Japanese university students: the classic part-time job. At retail group Lawson’s training centres, young recruits learn polite phrases to greet customers, before fanning out to its thousands of stores across Japan.

But there is something different about its recent recruits. They are not Japanese but Vietnamese, and their training takes place not in Tokyo but in Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City, about a month before they set off to study at universities in Japan.

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In a sign of the extreme tightness of Japan’s labour market — with the working age population falling and three years of Abenomics stimulus boosting demand for staff — Lawson has started training up Vietnamese students before they even leave home.

The chain’s move highlights a little-noticed result of Abenomics: a sharp and accelerating rise in short-term migration to Japan under visa categories that let workers from poorer countries taste the prosperity of Asia’s richest economy.

Since Prime Minister Shinzo Abe came to power at the end of 2012, the number of foreigners living in Japan is up almost 10 per cent to 2.2m, with the number of “technical interns” rising 27 per cent and the number of foreign students up 36 per cent.

While permanent immigration is rigidly controlled, the figures highlight one of the safety valves that Japanese companies use to control wage inflation, with worker inflows equivalent to 10-15 per cent of total job creation under Abenomics.

Lawson says it is aiming to recruit 100 Vietnamese students in the first year of the scheme and more thereafter. It recruits only students who are coming to Japan anyway; it does not get involved with their studies, their tuition fees or their visas.

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“Our aim is to make it easy for students to find part-time jobs at Lawson once they get to Japan,” says the company. “Students who do the induction need to have studied some level of Japanese already.”

Lawson says the scheme is one of several to tackle labour shortages as Japan’s working age population falls by about 1m a year. With the unemployment rate down to 3 per cent, there are 1.74 part-time jobs open for every applicant — levels last seen in 1992.

“To some extent I think the pick-up in migration is a response to shortages of labour in Japan,” says Mitsuhiro Fukao, a professor of economics at Keio University.

One of the main areas of migration is “technical interns”, a visa category that is supposed to allow workers from developing countries to train for up to three years at high-tech companies. Numbers are up by 41,178 to 192,655 since Abenomics began.

“Some are real trainees but some are disguised imports of cheap labour,” says Mr Fukao. Almost half of the technical interns are from China but numbers from Vietnam have exploded, rising threefold to 57,581 since 2012, reflecting Japan’s industrial ties with the fast-growing economy.

Student numbers are also up sharply, by 65,760 to 246,679, and the visa status allows some part-time work. Mr Fukao points out that numbers are recovering from a trough after the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011, however, so most of the students are likely genuine and motivated by study.

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While short-term migration eases some of the pressure on the labour market, corporate Japan is desperate for higher levels of permanent immigration, to offset the drag on economic growth from a falling population.

The subject remains controversial. Mr Abe has flirted with a few schemes to allow in highly skilled workers, but only a few thousand have arrived to date, and there is little political will to do more. But as labour shortages bite, especially in areas such as nursing care, that may change.

“I think the resistance against immigration is gradually declining because of the severity of the labour shortage,” says Mr Fukao. He suggests reviving a plan discussed under former prime minister Junichiro Koizumi: issuing work visas to applicants based on their Japanese language skills.

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