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Farming “interns” from Thailand.
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An Excel error could delay Japan’s massive immigration overhaul

By Isabella Steger

Japan’s government seems to be in need of some tech support.

Its plans to pass a crucial immigration bill that could open the country’s doors further to as many as 340,000 foreign workers from next year might be stymied due to data input errors.

Japan’s government had given lawmakers an analysis of why foreign workers in the country are dropping out of an existing work training program, as it argues for the country to create create two new categories of work visas. The justice ministry admitted last week that the data on those workers was incorrect, and blamed the problems on the handling of an Excel spreadsheet, the Japan Times reported (paywall). For example, the analysis exaggerated the number of foreign workers who left their jobs because they wanted higher-paying positions, rather than to escape poor wages or working conditions.

There are some 1.3 million foreign workers in Japan as of 2017, a 17% increase from the previous year, as businesses try and fill positions in industries ranging from construction to food preparation to nursing amid a shrinkage in Japan’s working population. Right now, foreign workers filling run-of-the-mill jobs are often in the country on temporary “trainee” visas that lock them into employers.

The proposed work-visa categories, approved this month by prime minister Shinzo Abe’s cabinet, would allow those with “specified skills” in the most labor-starved industries to live and work in Japan for up to five years. The new visa status would also allow such workers more flexibility in changing jobs, which would make them less vulnerable, proponents of greater immigration to Japan say.

Though Japan’s justice ministry has said that the errors were the result of mistakes in data processing—the latest IT mishap after Japan’s newly appointed cybersecurity minister admitted that he had never used a computer—opposition lawmakers have accused the government of glossing over the problems with the current trainee program in order to rush the bill through.

In the revised data, the government said for example that 12.6% of trainees said that they left their jobs because of harsh working conditions, up from the previous 5.4% presented by the ministry. Opposition legislators boycotted a debate over the immigration overhaul in the Diet last week in protest, but deliberations could resume this week. Many of those currently working as trainees are expected to switch over to the new visa status once the bill becomes law.

Japan’s justice minister apologized for the mishap (paywall) yesterday (Nov. 20) evening.

Calling foreign workers technical trainees or interns was a workaround for the government to keep it from having to admit that more people from overseas are living in Japan—a country where many remain deeply apprehensive about immigration, even as it struggles with a severe labor shortage. But it’s also a workaround that has left thousands of workers vulnerable to exploitation by employers and the brokers who bring them over, as many of these trainees told lawmakers earlier this month.

This story has been updated to include the justice minister’s response. 

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