As its labour force shrinks, Japan is looking abroad to fill jobs like healthcare aides and convenience-store managers.
But rather than increase immigration, the government is turning back to an “internship” program that the US and others have criticised as fraught with human rights abuses.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government is preparing to add aged care to the job categories eligible under its so-called Technical Intern Training Program. It also is considering convenience store work after last year expanding time limits on construction jobs.
The use of the program — which limits most workers’ stays to three years — reflects the dilemma facing Japan.
Many economists say the rapidly ageing country needs more foreign workers — lots of them, and soon. But few Japanese want to see an influx of unskilled migrant workers, a position the Prime Minister reflects.
“The Abe administration has no intention to implement” a more open immigration policy, he told parliament in February.
“There are various problems associated with immigration in European countries and we need to analyse these issues.”
The program employs about 167,000 foreigners, mostly from China and Vietnam, according to the Justice Ministry.
The government describes it as philanthropic, providing training for people who eventually return home with new skills to contribute to their local economies.
It has been popular in the region. Vietnam last year signed an agreement with farm co-operatives in Japan Ibaraki prefecture to expand the number of agricultural workers it sends through the program.
However, the US State Department’s 2014 Trafficking in Persons Report described it as a guest-worker program riddled with human rights abuses.