Japan Cabinet Proposes Change to Foreign Trainee Program to Address Labor Crunch; Expects to Attract 820,000 over 5 Years

Yomiuri Shimbun file photo
The Prime Minister’s Office in Tokyo

The government decided at a Cabinet meeting on Friday to present a legal revision that will abolish the current technical intern training program in order to establish a new training and employment system aimed at securing foreign workers.

Under the new system, the government expects trainees to achieve a certain level of skill within three years, then smoothly transition to “specified skilled” residence status that allows them to stay and work for a longer term.

The government will submit a bill for revising the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Law to the House of Representatives with the aim of gaining enactment during the current Diet session.

The current technical intern program started in 1993 was founded on the stated premise of making a “global contribution” by passing on skills to developing countries. The new training and employment system adds the practical aim of “securing and developing human resources,” making it clear that it is also meant to address the nation’s labor shortage.

Workers in the current program are not allowed, in principle, to change workplaces on their own volition. The revision will allow them to switch jobs within the same industry as long as they have worked for one or two years.

The change also takes into account criticism of the current program as “a hotbed of human rights violations” in which trainees toil for long hours, wages are not paid and other problems. To eliminate malicious middlemen who arrange job transfers, the government will impose a heavier penalty on agencies that arrange for a foreign national to engage in illegal work of “imprisonment for no more than 5 years or a fine not exceeding ¥5 million.”

Supervisory bodies that arrange for the foreign nationals and provide guidance for companies where they are placed will be required to appoint an external auditor to ensure their independence.

The new training system comes amid intensifying global competition for human resources, and the government aims to improve the employment environment to attract work-ready foreigners.

The government intends for foreign nationals to be trained for three years in order to reach the level needed for Category I of specified skilled worker status, which allows them to work for up to five years.

Once they achieve the status of Category II — which requires a higher level of skill — their period of stay will be de facto unlimited, and they will be permitted to have family members accompany them.

To help employees make the transition in status, the government will require that hiring companies create a training plan that stipulates the worker’s tasks, sets a target of Japanese language proficiency, and specifies other matters. Job areas covered by the new system will be matched with the fields of specified skilled workers, so that trainees can more easily make the transition.

Currently, Category I covers 12 fields, such as construction, agriculture and the lodging industry. The government plans to add four to the list, including automobile transport and railroads, and expects to attract up to 820,000 workers over a five-year span from fiscal 2024.

In preparation for the long-term stays of foreign workers, the draft revision will include a new provision in which a permanent residence visa can be revoked in cases in which taxes or social insurance premiums are knowingly left unpaid.

If the bill is passed in the current Diet session, the new system is expected to begin as early as in 2027. During the transition, technical intern trainees who came before the start of the new system will be allowed to stay in Japan until they complete the specified period.