Japan OKs economic plan that allows more foreign workers

Japan’s Cabinet adopted an economic plan that would allow more foreign workers as the rapidly aging country seeks to make up for its declining workforce.

Under the plan, Japan would relax visa requirements in sectors facing severe labor shortages such as nursing care, agriculture, construction, and transport – new categories it would start accepting in addition to highly skilled professionals.

The workers would be allowed to stay in the country for only up to five years as visitors, not as immigrants. They would not be allowed to be accompanied by family members – a measure that would encourage them to leave Japan when their visas expire and not become part of Japanese society. Japan also sets high standards for language skills and cultural understanding.

Still, the decision underscores Japan’s need to fill its labor shortage, forcing it to put aside its reluctance to accept outsiders.

The basic economic plan for 2018 needs parliamentary approval before it can take effect.

The number of foreign workers in Japan has nearly doubled over the past five years to 1.28 million last year. The fastest growing group is Vietnamese, whose population grew by 40 percent from a year earlier, many of them doing construction and nursing care jobs.

Officially, Japan only grants visas for highly skilled technical professionals, but small companies often take advantage of visa loopholes for foreign students and others on technical internship programs for training, putting them to work in factories and other low-skilled jobs.

Human rights groups and business lobbies have urged the government to expand work visas so that foreign workers can work legally and under improved conditions.

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