In September 2020, a female manager and others at a company operating Chinese restaurants and headquartered in Yokohama’s Chinatown were arrested on charges of promoting illegal labor. They had seven Chinese nationals engaged in waitressing and other work outside the activities permitted under their residency status. The female manager later received a summary indictment.
The seven employees hold residency status in Japan as “engineer/specialist in humanities/international services,” which are considered highly specialized labor. They were, however, waitressing at the restaurant. The operating company took care of renewing their residency status on their behalf. The employees said, “The company asked for our help because they were short of staff.”
“Initially we hired Japanese waitressing staff, but they all left because of problems communicating with their Chinese colleagues. So then I employed other Chinese nationals,” the manager explained.
“There is a serious labor shortage, and there are not enough people to take low-skilled jobs,” says an administrative procedures specialist who works in the Yokohama City area. “That has led to illegal employment in low-skilled jobs.” The administrative specialist has often been asked for advice on whether it is possible to hire foreigners to work in low-skilled jobs that are not permitted under their residency status. Even after being informed that such labor would be illegal, some insist that there are many who are already doing it. The administrative specialist says, “There are foreign residents who are seeking low-skilled jobs to earn a livelihood. The reality is that supply and demand for labor balance out because of it in many cases even though it is illegal.”
Foreign workers who are arrested for illegal employment are deported as a rule. According to the Immigration Services Agency, 19,386 foreigners were deported in 2019 for violating the immigration law, an increase by approximately 3,000 from the previous year. A total of 255 were deported for working in a job outside the ones permitted under their visa status.
In light of the labor shortage and the existence of job seekers, the government launched the “specified skilled worker” system to encourage the employment of foreigners in 14 low-skilled industries, such as elderly care, restaurants, and construction, where there is acute shortage of labor. The Immigration Services Agency says that there are only about 8,800 foreigners residing in Japan with the specified skilled worker status as of September 2020. This falls drastically short of the government goal to welcome up to 47,550 foreigners under the new system by the end of FY 2019.
When employing a foreigner under the specified skilled worker system, the employer must adhere to a number of rules, including providing the employee with accommodation, offering him/her the opportunity to learn Japanese, and preparing and abiding by a support plan that stipulates how the employer will address worker complaints. “One of the reasons why the specified skilled worker system doesn’t take off is that employers feel burdened by it,” says University of Tsukuba associate professor Junichi Akashi, an expert in Japan’s policies on foreign workers. He warns that the system’s dysfunction will “lead to exploitation of foreign workers who are forced to work under illegal conditions,” adding, “We can’t just rely on market forces. The government must accurately assess and improve the situation.” (Slightly abridged)