By EUGENE LANG, Nikkei staff writer
TOKYO — An agency designed to address workplace grievances and provide general assistance for foreign workers began operating Monday under a joint initiative by eight Japanese companies including Toyota Motor and Seven & i Holdings.
Employees of participating companies and their business partners can now seek assistance on work, personal and health-related issues through instant messages or over the phone in nine languages, including Mandarin, Vietnamese and Tagalog. The agency will also work with the Tokyo Bar Association to resolve serious grievances against employers through alternative dispute resolution.
The agency will be managed by the Japan Platform for Migrant Workers towards Responsible and Inclusive Society, or JP-Mirai, a framework advocating for foreign workers’ rights under the Japan International Cooperation Agency. Funding will be provided by the eight companies, which also include food maker Ajinomoto, property developer Mitsui Fudosan and Muji operator Ryohin Keikaku. The other three companies involved have not been made public.
Up to 20,000 workers will have access to the agency’s services in 2022, with the goal of expanding to 200,000 in 2023 and 1 million in 2024. It is expected to field around 2,000 cases in its first year.
The United Nations is urging businesses to create mechanisms allowing workers to bring complaints under its Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. Toyota and others decided to create a joint framework, since it would be challenging for each company to separately secure a multilingual staff that is familiar with Japanese legal procedures.
“It takes a lot of cost and labor for each company to do this, but it’s not much a burden when multiple companies can work together,” said Yozo Nakao at Ajinomoto’s Sustainability Promotion Division. Expanding the framework to include additional companies will be key to providing more comprehensive support.
The agency will not share detailed complaints to employers without the workers’ consent, but will communicate general concerns in a way that ensures workers’ anonymity.
“In addition to addressing specific problems, this will allow companies to understand what issues they have and improve their conditions,” said a representative from a participating company.
Japan has been opening its door wider to foreign workers amid a growing labor shortage. Their number increased 2.5 times in a decade to a record of over 1.72 million as of October, and is only expected to grow as Japan eases coronavirus-related entry restrictions.
Even with more women and seniors in the workforce and greater automation, Japan will still need 6.74 million foreign workers to meet the government’s growth target in 2040, according to JICA — nearly four times as many as there are currently.
Meanwhile, human rights are becoming a greater concern for businesses globally as environmental, social and governance goals take hold. There is a growing push in Europe to require companies to conduct human rights due diligence, such as ensuring there is no forced labor in-house or at their suppliers.
But Japan has come under fire for its treatment of foreign workers. Its government-run Technical Intern Training Program was criticized in a U.S. State Department report last year for exploiting foreigners. Companies themselves are also facing growing pressure to curb human rights abuses, in order to both attract foreign workers and prevent backlash from the public and investors.