BY MAGDALENA OSUMI
The immigration service had issued just 895 working permits as of early November under the new visa system for skilled blue-collar foreign workers, a far lower number than had originally been forecast for this time, agency officials said Wednesday.
The program, which was introduced in April, was intended to attract up to 345,000 blue-collar workers over five years for jobs in 14 sectors, including the hotel industry, to ease the nation’s labor shortage.
Those who received the new permits would be allowed to work for five years in the country, longer than the three-year period allowed under the government-sponsored Technical Intern Training Program.
As of the end of June, a record 2.83 million foreign nationals resided in Japan, including 783,513 permanent residents and 367,709 technical interns.
According to the Immigration Services Agency (ISA), the process of introducing industrial skills tests mandatory for those who apply for the new visas has not been smoothly implemented, which has slowed down an anticipated influx of workers.
As of the end of October, the tests had been conducted only in Japan and six other countries — and for only six of the 14 industrial sectors — leaving companies struggling to fill vacant jobs and pinning their hopes on the results of skills tests scheduled in coming months.
Of the 895 foreign nationals granted permits under the new visa statuses, 440 passed the exams while the remaining 455 changed the status of their visas to the new type.
Foreign nationals who wish to participate in the program can obtain the working permits if they pass tests in industrial skills and Japanese-language ability, while former technical interns can qualify if officials recognize their skills and experience from prior technical training.
Aiko Omi, director of the Office of the Specified Skilled Worker Planning at the immigration agency, explained that the blue-collar visa program has been attracting candidates from similar demographics as the government-sponsored Technical Intern Training Program.
Of the 895 workers granted permits so far, 219 were in Japan as of the end of September — up from 20 at the end of June. Of those, 80 percent, or 176, had come to Japan previously under the Technical Intern Training Program and had completed a three-year training program.
But by Nov. 8., 3,299 foreign workers had applied for the new visas and were in the process of trying to qualify for the program. Of those, 1,566 had never worked in Japan, Omi said.
Of the 219 workers in Japan as of the end of September, the largest proportion hailed from Vietnam, at 42 percent, followed by those from Indonesia and the Philippines.
Among the cohort, 22 percent were working for food and beverage manufacturers, again with Vietnamese nationals representing the largest group at 32. Other sectors where the workers were placed were industrial manufacturing, machine parts and tooling industries as well as agriculture.
By prefecture, Gifu has so far accepted the highest number of such blue-collar foreign workers, followed by Aichi and Osaka. In the individual industries, the food sector, which did not participate in the technical trainee program, saw 1,546 out of 2,194 applicants for the new visas pass skills tests held in April, June and September.
In the hotel sector, of 391 applicants who took tests in Myanmar and Japan, 280 qualified for the new working permits.
Although Japan opened up its nursing care sector, which has long faced a severe labor shortage, to foreign nationals wishing to work as technical trainees from November 2017, none of the trainees taking part in the program so far have completed the training. Of the 16 caregivers accepted into the program as of late September, those from the Philippines who were former caregivers under bilateral economic partnership agreements comprised the majority. The skills tests were only introduced in Cambodia, Indonesia, Nepal and Japan in October.
Skills tests for job categories such as building cleaning and airport ground handling are scheduled to be held in Japan and overseas for the first time in November and December.