Japan’s migrant worker challenge


The number of migrants in Japan is once again on the rise as the country slowly opens its door to a new wave of workers from south-east Asia. Last year, the number of foreign workers in Japan hit one million for the first time. However, a lack of enforcement of labour laws, the use of brokers and limited efforts to educate and integrate migrants are creating challenges in a country long known for its cultural homogeneity.

“Right now, there is a shortage of personnel, so there has been [an increase] in the number of foreign workers in Japan,” says Saichi Kurematsu, president of the Aichi Federation of Trade Unions, the regional affiliate of the Zenroren national trade union centre.

Migrant workers are important to the Aichi Federation because Aichi Prefecture, which encompasses the Nagoya metropolitan region, has long been a primary entry point for migrant workers due to the preponderance of factories in the area, many of which are connected to the car manufacturing giant Toyota.

The need for foreign labour in Japan is becoming acute, particularly in certain industries such as construction, which has seen a surge in employment due to the massive reconstruction efforts stemming from the devastating earthquake in 2011.

A recent study found that there are approximately 143 jobs for every 100 applicants in Japan; meanwhile, foreigners make up just 2 per cent of the Japanese population.

Another factor in the need for more workers in Japan is its rapidly ageing population. After decades of low birthrates, Japan’s population fell by almost one million people between 2010 and 2015, making it the first country in the world to experience depopulation primarily due to an ageing population, rather than conflict or emigration, for example. This will only get worse if immigration levels do not increase – according to some estimates, by 2060 Japan’s population will shrink by a third if current trends hold.

“Japan needs people”

“Why do we need to change? Because we don’t have people,” says Haruka Nagao, the founder of Viva Okazaki. “As of 2016, almost 40 per cent of our population is over 60 – [they are] too old to work. Japan needs people, but we don’t have any clear rules, or support, for foreign residents.”

Nagao’s organisation is based in Aichi Prefecture, which has the highest percentage of foreign-born residents in all of Japan. Viva Okazaki works to build multicultural understanding, addressing what it sees as cultural barriers towards genuine integration.

“We have some stereotypes and prejudice. Also, we Japanese don’t have much experience communicating with foreign people. We don’t know the culture barriers of others, or other ways of thinking,” Nagao tells Equal Times.

During the 1980s and 1990s, most migrants to Japan came from large, ethnic Japanese communities in Peru or Brazil. After the Japanese economy stagnated in the 1990s, many were offered lump sums of money to return to South America. When the economy recovered, a new wave of workers arrived in the early 2000s, mostly from neighbouring countries such as South Korea and China. Many of these workers came as ‘trainees’ on short-term visas, so when the 2008-9 global financial crisis hit and these ‘trainees’ lost their jobs, they had to leave Japan once their visas expired.

Although the same system applies to Japan’s current crop of migrant workers, many of them now come from Vietnam due to the emerging importance of the south-east Asian nation as a base for Japanese factories.

“The number of Chinese [migrant workers] has decreased because the Japanese companies that had plants in China have now moved these plants to Vietnam and other parts of south-east Asia,” says Kurematsu. “In the whole country, the number of Vietnamese [migrant workers] could be more than Chinese now.”

Because many of these workers arrive officially as trainees – and are tied to working for a specific company – they are vulnerable to exploitation. According to Kurematsu, his union receives complaints almost everyday from Vietnamese workers about workplace issues.

In 2010, Japan amended labour laws to give migrant workers and trainees the same rights as Japanese workers. This was a major step forward, according to Kurematsu.

“Before, the labour law did not apply to the trainees, so that was why they were forced to work overtime with a wage of between 300 and 400 yen (approximately US$2.50-US$3.75) per hour. After 2010, the number of low wage cases decreased.”

Wage theft and labour brokers

However, low wages are once again on the increase as the number of new migrants continues to rise. Despite the fact that Japan guarantees the same minimum wage to migrants as locals, the Aichi Federation has received complaints of numerous cases of wage theft in the past year, including unpaid overtime and the use of labour brokers who charge high fees to facilitate the migration process. This is a particular problem in the garment industry.

“Since June last year...30 people who work in the sewing industry both in Gifu and Aichi prefectures have come to us for consultations,” says Kurematsu. “All of them were saying that they worked 100 hours of overtime for just 400 or 500 yen (approximately US$3.75 to 4.50) per hour, without any days off – even on Saturday or Sunday.”

Further investigation found that this is a systematic problem, says Kurematsu. The legal minimum wage in Gifu Prefecture is 940 yen (US$8); if you add up all the hours of underpaid labour owed to migrant workers, it adds up to a massive amount. “We estimate that some 3000 people have been affected,” says Kurematsu.

The Aichi Federation is hopeful that a recent announcement by the Ministry of International Trade and Industry to investigate the garment industry will result in a new policy to address wage theft.

Another change that the Aichi Federation would like to see is less reliance on labour brokers as intermediaries between migrant workers and Japanese companies.

“Vietnamese workers come to Japan and work for 400 yen per hour but before they arrive, they have already paid between one and 1.5 million yen (approximately US$9,000-US$13,500) to brokers,” says Kurematsu.

Another challenge is ensuring that Japanese agencies have translators who can provide language assistance to migrants. Without it, migrant workers and trainees will continue to have a difficult time accessing legal assistance. And as more workers arrive from elsewhere in the region – such as the Philippines, Indonesia and Thailand – the need for multilingual assistance will only grow.

The reality is, unless birth rates shift dramatically, foreign workers and their families will have to be a part of Japan’s future if it is to continue as a world-leading economy. If the government fails to make concrete efforts to protect these workers, in the future it might not be the case that migrants can’t come to Japan – they just might choose not to.