Wait continues for day technical interns will again be allowed into Japan

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Technical interns pick mizuna potherb mustard with a trainer, in black, in Hokota, Ibaraki Prefecture.

The agriculture and nursing care industries are suffering from a staffing shortage amid the COVID-19 pandemic as they rely heavily on foreign technical interns to supplement their workforce.

On top of a situation where only a few foreign interns were able to enter the country this year, border control against the omicron variant has suspended entries of foreign nationals who are not residents of Japan, worsening the situation.

The worldwide spread of the omicron variant has been casting uncertainty over the future.

The government has banned the entry of non-resident foreign nationals since January. The restrictions were eased on Nov. 8, but reimposed at the end of the same month due to the outbreak of the omicron variant.

The entry ban has kept out such foreign nationals as technical interns and those whose status on their visa is “specified skilled worker.” This status is given to foreign nationals working in designated job categories, such as agriculture.

“After almost a year of waiting, I was happy when entries became allowed” in early November, said Koji Kobayashi, a farmer who grows mizuna potherb mustard and spinach in Hokota, Ibaraki Prefecture. “Now, I’m disappointed.”

At Kobayashi’s farm, about 10 trainees from Indonesia and Vietnam help harvest vegetables each year. He was planning to hire three interns this year, but none of them could come to Japan. Two workers here will leave the farm early next year.

“The trainees are highly motivated, physically fit and quick to learn,” Kobayashi said. “Our shipments will fall behind if I lose them. They are my last resort.”

The problem is not limited to agriculture. At present, technical interns are engaged in 85 fields, including construction and textile work, while specified skilled workers are allowed in 14 kinds, such as nursing care.

At a nursing home for the elderly in Saitama City, a Mongolian woman, who was supposed to work with her specified skilled worker’s status, could not come to Japan.

“We were relying on her for nursing care in general,” said Koji Arai, head of the home’s general affairs office. “We have no idea what the future holds.”

111,000 can’t come

According to the Immigration Services Agency, about 190,000 people came to Japan in 2019 as technical interns or with the status of specified skilled worker, but the number decreased to about 90,000 in 2020 and just over 20,000 as of September 2021. There were about 111,200 technical interns waiting in their home countries as of October.

Agencies that introduce trainees to companies are also perplexed. NBC Kyodo Kumiai in Shinagawa Ward, Tokyo, has introduced trainees to about 200 companies, but this year has had almost no trainees. It has received concerns from companies that fear they will not be able to operate their factories or will have to revise personnel plans.

“I think the government should make a decision based on individual circumstances, such as considering accepting people who have been vaccinated, rather than restricting entry across the board just because they are foreigners,” an NBC spokesperson said.

Closing company

Some companies are closing due to the lack of foreign talent amid the prolonged strict border controls.

Garment maker Nishinihon Iryo in Tagawa, Fukuoka Prefecture, has accepted technical interns for about 20 years. These interns account for 40% of the company’s employees, making it difficult for the firm to secure sufficient staffing.

The company, established in 1962, decided to close down while it can still pay salaries to its employees.

There is also a trend among technical trainees already in Japan to shift their status to that of a specified skilled worker, which will allow them to stay in the country longer. However, sewing is not listed as a job for specified skilled workers.

“I want the government to know that this is happening in non-designated industries,” Nishinihon Iryo President Toshiyuki Himaki said. “I would like the government to review the system.”