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Japan: Free trade deal with Manila stumbles over labour

24July 2006

JAPAN: Free Trade Deal With Manila Stumbles Over Labour

Japan’s official policy regards foreign workers as an economic necessity rather than people with rights similar to the Japanese, which is why there is still no progress in an FTA with the Philippines.
— Nobuki Fujimoto, Asia Pacific Human Rights Center

Suvendrini Kakuchi

TOKYO, Jul 24 (IPS) - While Sunday marked the 50th anniversary of bilateral friendship between Japan and the Philippines, Tokyo has decided not to use the occasion to conclude a long-awaited free trade agreement (FTA) with a fellow Asian country.

’’It’s a pity but negotiations are still under way. I cannot estimate a time frame for it in the near future,’’ said Michiko Kara, a foreign ministry spokeswoman, referring to the much talked about bilateral deal.

She explained that negotiations are bogged down on important aspects of the FTA, primarily polices and legal text covering bilateral investment agreements that aim at facilitating private investment by companies on both sides.

Importantly, Kara diffused hopes that the agreement would allow nurses and caregivers from the Philippines to work here, saying there is still a long way to go before that door is opened in Japan.

‘’An FTA must benefit both sides which is what makes it so difficult to conclude one with the Philippines,’’ she told IPS pointing out, however, that there will be no major changes in the basic FTA accord signed in November 2004.

The original plan was to conclude an FTA in 2005 in celebration of 50 years of formal Japan-Philippine relations. The two countries have grown economically and politically close, despite a marred history in which the now defunct Japanese Imperial Army occupied parts of the country until the close of World War II.

Analysts examining the migrant sector in the FTA ascribe the delay to sharp differences between the expectations of the two countries.

The Philippines is a leading provider of migrant labour in the world and is keen to break into the Japanese market, in contrast to Japan where accepting foreigners remains a thorny issue.

An initial proposal focused on Japan accepting a small number (around 100) of Japanese-speaking caregivers and nurses a year, was rejected by the Philippine government.

‘’There is obviously a huge difference in views between Japan and the Philippines over migrant labour. Japan is still wavering despite the growing needs of its aging society. We cannot go on any longer without the help of nurses from the Philippines,’’ said Takaji Kuroda, director at AHP, a Tokyo based company involved in training Vietnamese nurses to gain employment in Japan.

AHP, in expectation of a new FTA between Japan and the Philippines, has already started Japanese language schools for nurses.

‘’The biggest problem in tying the FTA knot is the reluctance of the Japanese government to allow foreigners to work here. Japan must develop a proper immigration base that guarantees equal pay to foreign nurses as Japanese nurses and also provide them with proper work visas and equal opportunities,’’ he explained.

Under special trainee visas, Kuroda’s company has provided 42 Vietnamese nurses to short-staffed Japanese hospitals. The Vietnamese attend Japanese language schools at home and then study for the grueling Japanese nursing exam in Japan before being formally hired.

Recently, the Japanese government has softened immigration laws to extend working visas for Vietnamese nurses from four to seven years. The nurses are paid salaries at par with Japanese nurses that are, on average, five times higher than what they would earn at home.

Nobuki Fujimoto, analyst at Asia Pacific Human Rights Center, based in Osaka, told IPS that Japan’s official policy regards foreign workers as an economic necessity rather than people with rights similar to the Japanese which is why there is still no progress in an FTA with the Philippines.

’’Based on this policy, I predict the government will open the door to Filipino domestic workers rather than nurses, which is a higher paying job. As the Japanese population ages, Filipino care givers are considered a stop gap measure,’’ he pointed out.

Both Fujimoto and Kuroda deplore Japan’s policy of restricting foreigners to low-skilled jobs, a sector that is often controlled by unscrupulous management. Besides, the situation breeds racial discrimination as well as crime committed by desperate foreigners.

’’Japan needs to accept foreign skilled labour. These workers must be respected and have access on an equal basis to Japanese in well-paying jobs that contribute to the economy. This would deflate social tension and create a healthy diversity in Japan,’’ said Kuroda.

Filipina professor, Desiderio Carlos, at Ryukoku University in Kyoto, however, acknowledged that there are various stumbling blocks for foreigners in the Japanese labour market which, demand rigid discipline that can often be tedious for outsiders.

’’There are cultural clashes, apart from language, such as Japanese management getting angry over the laid-back working styles of the Filipinos, who come late to work, have painted finger nails or laugh or talk loudly which is against local work ethics,’’ she explained.

Carlos suggests that the Japanese government begins by providing visas and job opportunities for Filipino residents who, she says, are more accustomed to Japanese society and can speak the language.

There are around 200,000 registered Philippine nationals in Japan. ‘’There is no doubt that Japanese society is closed to foreigners and it is difficult to suddenly open the door. A step-by-step approach might work better for Japan,’’ she told IPS. (END/2006)

 source: IPS