With the rise of globalization, labor markets have become international. When labor demands increase in a nation’s economy, these are not always met by local supply. Differently skilled laborers find employment across the world — often in OECD or top economies — expanding their possibilities for their economic, family, or other forms of migration. Popular notions in academic research such as Castle’s North-South divide aim to explain some driving factors for how lower-skilled workers fill gaps in other nations’ economies. Guest-worker programs, controlled by receiving and emitting countries, have attempted to cover different labor needs. This is the case of Japan’s Ginō Jisshū Seido or 技能実習制度. This de-facto guest-worker program is labeled as a ‘Technical Intern Training Program’ or TITP aimed at attending to Japan’s low-skilled labor supply shortage with an aging local population in exchange for Japanese-style skill development. This is a government-organized internship program with foreign nationals from mostly Asian countries from the Global South. Ministry of Justice report (2017) Vietnam and China account for approximately 40 and 38% of all TITP trainees. The Philippines, Indonesia, and Thailand make up the rest of the countries under this scheme. Nevertheless, this program has been surrounded by controversies of patterns of abuse of these workers. International news outlets investigated reports of wage theft, physical and racialized abuses, and all-around dire working situations (BBC 2019). Such reports occur in a sociopolitical environment with a highly restrictive immigration system and a long-standing practice of homogeneous priorities in public policy.
In this essay, I explore why Japan’s TITP guest worker program should be discontinued. I argue that long-standing patterns of migrant worker abuse make this a moral hazard and create market inefficiencies by devesting of local labor supply which does not attend to Japan’s labor shortage issue in the long term. This program is at a sociopolitical crossroads in Japan where meeting economic needs is clouded by a caveat of not giving away employment, residency, public benefits, nor citizenship to foreign nationals along the process. I, therefore, find first, the issue of public acceptability and lack thereof of migrant workers, second, an aversion to giving immigration benefits in forms of access to the labor market, residency and citizenship to foreign nationals, and third, the ultimate debate of immigration politics with concerns over the welfare state. These three spearheaded arguments aim to explain why guest-worker programs should be discontinued in Japan and some recommendations as to what could replace it; namely employment visas.
Japan faces labor shortages and has used its TITP guest-worker program to address this issue. The program has seen increased participation due to offering stable and continuous employment on top of promising skill development according to Japanese recognized standards. The program continues to be attractive to migrant workers due to the high minimum wage differentials between the home and Japanese economies. The bar chart below shows the exponential increase in numbers of enrolled foreign trainees over the years:
Japan’s notorious restrictive immigration system has been relenting to meet labor shortages while accounting for a very demanding public (Tsuda, 2003; Tian, 2019) . Its homogenous roots date back to the Edo dynasty when Japan became sealed off to the outside for 214 years (Laver, 2011). Guest-worker programs affect the public opinion of immigration due to a fear of giving up public resources to foreigners. The TITPs program has seen an exponential increase in foreign trainees since 2010. The number of foreign nationals in Japan has also increased: approximately by 900 thousand over the last decade, out of which roughly 45% come from guest-worker programs (MoJ Japan, 2020). Studies find that so have increased the anti-immigrant sentiments in Japan’s general public (Yoon, 2021). It is therefore that scholars find anti-immigration attitudes linked to a concern over public spending and overstraining of the welfare state (Burgoon and Rooduijn, 2021, p. 178; Johnston et al, 2010). The homogenous nature of immigration politics in Japan has led to developing this restrictive non-immigrant guest-worker program limiting the access of migrants to various resources.
Immigrant access to labor benefits
Growing anti-immigrant sentiments in Japan shape government immigration policies (Brader et al, 2008; Boushey and Luedtke, 2011; Yoon, 2016). The development of TITPs as a guest-worker program strategically meets the public expectations of keeping national benefits to foreigners (Tian, 2019). Firstly, The Japanese model of guest-work bars migrants from free access to the Japanese labor market by making their legal status dependent upon their traineeship. No upward or lateral mobility is permitted since this would mean allowing foreign nationals to take jobs that otherwise should have been openings for Japanese nationals. TITP being a trainee program avoids public scrutiny of job supply. Secondly, the program prevents migrants from achieving permanent residency. Such a benefit would encourage migrant integration and hence backlash towards the government. And thirdly, no path for citizenship is possible either. Migrants under this program must return to their homes after a maximum of 5 years of ‘training’. Former prime minister Abe attempted to welcome temporary foreign labor while appeasing the public from giving up employment, residency, or citizenship.
Prospective trainees migrate from their countries for an array of reasons surrounding economic opportunity. To understand why rates of trainees continue to increase, Castles details migration drivers that can explain this. The socioeconomic inequality between the Global North and South serves as a driver for migrants and their agency to agree to such a work opportunity (2004; Sanderson, 2016). Castles understands migration as a byproduct of inequality as a global structure where class and nationality intersect (2004, p. 223; De Haas, 2011). This inequality which has largely increased with the increase in TITP trainees can be understood by Ruhs and Martin numbers versus rights theory (2008). The authors find that in “high-income countries the demand for low-skilled migrant labor is downward sloping with respect to rights” (2008, p. 252). In other words, the increase in workers as shown previously in the graph can be associated with the increase in abuses reported and covered by news sources in relation to this program.
Concurrently, Japan’s guest-worker program has not become a long-term fix since trainees come and go and do not represent a stable form of labor for the nation. This policy is narrow and short-sighted as to the economic effects it can have by investing in temporary visiting labor. In fact, research shows that for migration policies to be effective they must be designed with the right political and economic foresight (Castles, 2004, p. 205). Abe’s tenure of 10 years as MP arguably allowed for TITP to develop much further while disregarding migration agency and long-term economic plans (Vogt, 2013). To this day information asymmetries for migrants remain together with implementation gaps between policy and action.
The welfare state: the immigration politics debate
The scholarship surrounding the immigration effect on welfare states remains unclear. The notion that immigrants of various legal statuses are a drain to the nation’s welfare is still a misconception. In fact, debates around welfare redistribution have been found to be reliant on public attitudes of immigration (Burgoon and Rooduijn, 2021, p. 178). The large-scale study of EU welfare states subject to immigration effects (Markaki and Blinder, 2018), shows bifurcation between public perception and true strain on the welfare state. Countries with a large proportion of migrants being employed and in generous liberal governments see immigrants as fiscal contributors, while in any case that these two variables are not met, the public perception sees immigrants as fiscal burdens (2018, p. 35). The fiscal burden hypothesis of immigration in the EU is, therefore, not supported (2018; Burgoon and Rooduijn, 2021).
Besides the number of economic and social implications that do not meet the needs of Japan’s labor shortage, the anti-humanitarian reality that these workers suffer from cannot be overlooked. U.N. special rapporteur on human rights of migrants, Jorge Bustamante, reflected on Japan’s TITP program. The UN, thereby, pointed the possibility of these exploitative labor practices being in violation of human rights treaties and may amount to “slavery” (JapanTimes, 2010). Humanitarian concerns aside, the program faces issues of public acceptability limiting migrant integration and misconceptions of immigrant impact on public funds. Bustamante recommended for Japan’s guest-worker program to be discontinued immediately and be replaced by fair employment visas (JapanTimes, 2010). Employment visas receive regular worker benefits that can otherwise be excluded by government control programs. These visas allow for migrant mobility among labor openings and decrease the moral hazard of highly controlled and exploitative practices preceding it. With increased exposure to locals, public acceptability will in turn have to increase after expected initial resistance. Such practices allow for migrant agency both in the emigration part of their journey but also in considering possible returns to their emitting country in a more rational or free setting. It is therefore that I argue that the Japanese guest-worker program TITP should be discontinued due to issues of migrant worker rights infringements and economic inefficiencies for Japanese interests.
– BBC News (2009) ‘Migrant workers ‘exploited’ in Japan,’ World segment: Asia, 25 August, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/av/world-asia-49448757.
– Blinder, S. and Markaki, Y. (2019) ‘The Effects of immigration on Welfare Across the EU: Do Subjective Evaluations Align with Estimations?’ University of Oxford: working paper, REMINDER Project, https://www.reminder-project.eu/publications/working-papers/the-effects-of-immigration-on-welfare-across-the-eu-do-subjective-evaluations-align-with-estimations/
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