Japan Forced to Cope With Migrant Labor Problem

Associated Press

A wealth of job opportunities is luring tens of thousands of South and Southeast Asians to Japan, forcing this once isolated nation to cope with the problem of migrant labor.

More than half the foreigners working at companies investigated by the Labor Ministry between Oct. 16 and Nov. 16 were found to be working illegally, a recent report showed.

Poor working conditions and the risk of deportation haven’t discouraged the wave of workers from less wealthy Asian nations, nor have wages that are low by Japanese standards although, because of the strong yen, high in the foreign workers’ own countries.

The Japanese government so far has responded to the surge in foreign labor with plans to open its doors wider to foreign professionals. But it has reaffirmed a ban on manual laborers, provoking a national debate over the merits of internationalizing Japan’s closed society.


While government and private groups study the problem, the influx of illegal foreign workers continues to grow.

In 1987, the Labor Ministry deported 11,307 foreigners for working illegally. In the first half of 1988, Japanese police and immigration authorities arrested 7,196 foreigners for working illegally, up from 5,802 in the first half of 1987.

But those numbers compare to police estimates that about 70,000 illegal foreign workers are in Japan. About half the illegal workers are men.

Women, often recruited by crime syndicates, long have flocked to Japan to work, often legally, as “entertainers.” Human rights groups say the gangs that control Japan’s underworld often force them into working as prostitutes.

Since 1985, however, the number of illegal male workers in Japan has ballooned as unskilled workers from the Philippines, Bangladesh and Pakistan find ready employment, Labor Ministry figures show.

No Penalty for Illegal Hiring

In the ministry’s investigation, of 202 foreigners working at 15,796 companies, 111 were working illegally, Kyodo News Service reported.

It said 54 of the illegal workers were from Bangladesh, 36 from Pakistan, 13 from India, two each from Ghana, Taiwan and Thailand and one each from the Philippines and South Korea.


Most of the clandestine laborers worked long hours with no vacations for low wages, having overstayed tourist visas after finding work at construction sites or in small metal working, chemical or food processing factories, the report said.

Despite the government ban, firms that hire foreign manual workers are not penalized. A shortage of Japanese willing to do manual labor encourages them to employ foreigners, who often are reluctant to complain of poor treatment because of the risk of deportation, said Eiko Shinotsuka, a labor economist at Ochanomizu University in Tokyo.

Both men and women working illegally are vulnerable to exploitation because of their illegal status, said Yaeko Takeoka, a lawyer familiar with the problems of clandestine workers.

Japanese employees in the metal working industry receive average hourly wages of 2,150 yen, or about $17.20. Clandestine workers receive hourly wages of 500 to 700 yen, or $4 to $5.60, Labor Ministry figures show.


Japan Has 2.4% Unemployment

But a few months of even low wages in Japanese yen amount to a fortune for migrant workers because of the lower cost of living in other Asian countries. Japan’s average per-capita income is about $17,000, compared to $550 in the Philippines, $113 in Bangladesh and $360 in Pakistan.

By living together in small apartments to save on expenses, the clandestine workers manage to send about half their wages home to their families. Isolated in a society where they must constantly hide from police and immigration officials, few plan to stay in Japan indefinitely.

“They just come for short stays,” Shinotsuka said.


Economists say the influx of illegal laborers is unlikely to abate because Japan’s 2.4% unemployment rate reflects a trend toward shortages of workers in certain industries.

Worker Shortage Predicted

A recent report by the National Council for Development of an Economic Structure of the 21st Century predicted that Japan will face a shortage of 2.7 million workers by 2000 if current economic trends continue.

The council recommended that Japan accept unskilled and semi-skilled foreign workers and suggested establishment of a system to prevent exploitation of “guest workers.”


Numerous commentaries also have urged that Japan welcome its less affluent neighbors.

“In Japan, we don’t accept political asylum and we turn our backs on immigrants. Maybe, in the short run, this is a wise policy in avoiding problems. However, can we say this policy is right over the long run?” wrote commentator Yunosuke Ohkura in the Japan Times.

Noting that the Japanese believe they are “unique and therefore superior,” Mitsunobu Sugiyama of the University of Tokyo said in a recent article in the Japan Quarterly that “constant contact with the people of other nations on this very personal level would do much to open Japanese eyes and help them better understand the rest of the world.”

A recent report by a Labor Ministry advisory panel, however, concluded that foreign manual laborers were undesirable. Their unfamiliarity with Japanese language and customs, it said, could cause social conflict.