Long wait finally ends for foreign workers kept out by pandemic

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Vietnamese employees learn how to cook hamburger steaks during a Mos Food Service training session in Shinagawa Ward, Tokyo, on May 19.

“Is that to eat here?” Vietnamese workers said cheerfully in Japanese as they practiced taking an order at a training facility of a hamburger shop operator in Tokyo. They were there to learn the fast food business, some of many foreign workers who have finally been allowed into Japan.

The easing of restrictions on entry into Japan in March for foreign nationals with a “specified skilled worker” visa has enabled their full-fledged flow into the country, much to the relief of businesses desperate to fill labor shortages as the economy reopens.

The situation is particularly welcomed by the restaurant industry, which fills much of its employment needs with foreign workers. Still, many problems remain with the system, such as the “wall” that limits their period of stay to a maximum of five years — two of which were lost for some during the pandemic.

In mid-May at the training facility of Mos Food Services Inc., the operator of the Mos Burger fast food chain, in Tokyo’s Shinagawa Ward, Vietnamese workers learned how to operate the cash register, cook hamburger steaks and do other tasks in preparation for being assigned to shops in mid-June.

“I’ve been waiting so long for this, I’m so happy,” Dau Thi Quynh, 26, said. “I want to send part of my salary to my family.”

Of the 16 people who joined Mos Burger this spring, 14 came to Japan two years later than originally planned. The company plans to hire up to 80 more Vietnamese by the end of fiscal 2024.

Limited to 5 years

The government created the new visa status of “specified skilled worker” in 2019 to address a labor shortage with workers from abroad. As the low wages paid to technical intern trainees and foreign students had became a problem, those with the new visa had to be hired as regular staff and paid the same wages as their Japanese counterparts.

There are 14 fields of jobs eligible for the visa, and the workers are divided into two categories depending on skill level. Twelve of the fields, such as food services and hotels, can hire only Category I workers. Their period of stay is limited to a maximum of five years and they cannot be accompanied by family members.

The other two fields — construction, and shipbuilding and marine engineering — can employ workers of both categories. Category II applies to those with advanced skills; their period of stay is unlimited and they can bring their families.

The government is looking to accept up to 345,000 foreign workers by the end of fiscal 2023. As of the end of March this year, however, the number stood at only 64,730, due to the large impact of pandemic-related border controls.

An Immigration Services Agency official said that given the relaxation of the restrictions in March, those “who received the specified skilled worker visa while the restrictions were in place but could not come to Japan are now arriving.”

However, many in the restaurant industry are dissatisfied, pointing out that the limit on the period of residency makes it “hard to use” the workers. There is strong hesitation to hire Category I workers, as the feeling is that even after they learn how to deal with customers in Japan, they will have to go home in five years anyway.

While the government envisions accepting as many as 53,000 foreign workers for the restaurant industry by the end of fiscal 2023, the number as of March this year was only about 2,300, or 4% of the target.

Promotion possible

The manager of restaurant chain Shabu-Shabu Onyasai’s branch in Fujisawa, Kanagawa Prefecture, is a 28-year-old Vietnamese man named Pham Dam Linh. Linh’s Japanese ability and job motivation were valued highly enough for him to be promoted in September last year to the position, in which he is in charge of setting sales targets and scheduling shifts for part-time workers.

“I want to show other Vietnamese in Japan that even foreigners can become a store manager,” Linh said.

However, his specified skilled worker visa expires in March 2025. “I want to gain more experience in Japan,” he said.

For its part, Colowide Co., which operates the chain and employs Linh, said, “Regardless of their nationality, we want capable people to work over the long run.”

The government is considering shifting some of the 12 fields currently in Category I to Category II.

“We are looking at next year as that is when we’ll start having workers entering their fifth year,” said an official with a government office dealing with economic matters, although a firm timetable has yet to be decided.

There is strong opposition among members of the ruling parties, who say it could affect immigration policies and also lead to the granting of permanent residency.

Shift away from Japan

There are also problems with the examination system used to acquire a specified skilled worker visa.

In principle, to qualify it is necessary to pass both a technical skills test and a Japanese language proficiency exam. However, there are cases in which these tests are not conducted in some countries and regions which sends worker to Japan.

About 60% of the workers under this program come from Vietnam, but there is no on-site testing in the country.

Some Vietnamese workers at Mos Food Services took the technical skills test in Fukuoka Prefecture, but the company had to bear the travel and hotel expenses. “It is a big initial investment, and society as a whole will be slow to take them in,” a company official said.

In addition, the weakening of the yen has also produced headwinds. According to the Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO), Japan was the largest recipient of Vietnamese workers in 2019 and 2020, but was overtaken by Taiwan in 2021.

Many Vietnamese send their salary to their family in their home country, but if the yen continues to weaken, the amount will noticeably decrease when converted into local currency. The rate of wage growth in Taiwan is higher than in Japan, and this is seen as leading to a shift away from Japan.