TOKYO, June 12 Japan is both ageing and
shrinking as it tries to emerge from two decades of economic
stagnation. The construction workforce is a prime example. It
has contracted by a third since its peak in 1997 and is set to
continue that trend - a fifth of the workers in that industry
are aged over 60.
Yet construction companies face boom times with new building
projects tied to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and rebuilding work in
the areas of northern Japan destroyed by a 2011 tsunami.
The easy answer would be to open the immigration gates to
foreign labor, but the Japanese public, worried about safety and
the impact on their culture, are adamantly opposed. Prime
Minister Shinzo Abe has found a halfway measure - expanding a
controversial program that offers "trainees" from China and
elsewhere work for up to three years in the world's third
The plan, to be unveiled later this month, contemplates
letting trainees stay for up to five years, relaxes hiring rules
for employers and would boost the number of jobs open to them.
It follows a government decision in April allowing
construction workers who had completed their stint under the
trainee program to come back for another 2-3 years as regular
While the government says it doesn't have a specific target
for the number of workers it wants to attract, the reforms
amount to the biggest opening to foreign labor in many years.
Abe's economic plan specifically states that the enlargement of
the program is not, however, an "immigration policy".
Abe's Liberal Democratic Party wants to strengthen the
governance of the program with harsher penalties for companies
that abused workers, and would rely on external inspectors and
local governments to monitor compliance.
(Reporting By Antoni Slodkowski; Editing by Bill Tarrant)