Japan, Philippines FTA shows foreign worker hurdles
29 Nov 2004 13:21:24 GMT
(Updates with broad agreement, details)
By Linda Sieg
TOKYO, Nov 29 (Reuters) - Japan and the Philippines on Monday clinched a broad free trade agreement (FTA) that would include letting a trickle of nurses into Japan to help cope with a shortage.
But experts say planned restrictions show how cautious Tokyo still is about opening the door to foreign workers, despite an ageing society and an expected shrinkage in the population.
Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo reached the agreement on the FTA — Japan’s third after deals with Singapore and Mexico — when they met on the sidelines of an Asian leaders’ gathering in Vientiane, Laos, Japan’s trade ministry said in a statement.
The deal, which covers industry, agriculture and the services sector will allow some nurses and nursing care providers from the Philippines, selected from a pool of licensed practitioners, to work in Japan and apply for visa extensions if they become licensed there, the statement said.
Japan would decide on the number of Philippine nurses and nursing care providers it would accept after discussing with Manila, it added.
Philippine Trade and Industry Secretary Cesar Purisima told Reuters the deal would be finalised early next year, and a Japanese trade official said the two countries wanted to implement it as soon as possible.
Philippine Labour Secretary Patricia Santo Tomas said Manila had agreed with Tokyo to send only 100 nurses in the first year.
"That’s only the initial group because we also want them to be trained in the Japanese language," she told Reuters. "It’s our choice that it is like that because we don’t want to go into a country where we will have problems later on," she said.
Japan’s rapidly ageing population and low birth rate mean it must let in more foreign workers to maintain productivity and stay competitive, experts say.
But the authorities may be wary about opening the door too wide due to fears about the impact on wages plus worries that foreigners will bring in crime and terrorism.
"The days of total opposition to letting in foreign workers are over. Now it’s a question of how fast and under what kind of system," said Sanae Suzuki, a researcher at the Institute of Developing Economies.
"It’s important that there be clear rules for letting in foreign labour, otherwise the flow will be hard to control and a trend towards illegal immigrants would be created," Suzuki added.
"The message is, the government wants to maintain control."
Foreigners living in Japan totalled 1.85 million in 2003, about two percent of the population.
The government has estimated that there are more than 200,000 illegal aliens staying in Japan and conservative politicians often blame them for the country’s rising crime rate, although statistics do not bear out that assertion.
Japan’s greying population means demand for nurses and other care givers is bound to increase in coming years.
Nearly one in five Japanese is aged 65 or over and that figure is expected to rise to one in four over the next decade.
Japan’s fertility rate — the average number of children a woman bears in her lifetime — hit a postwar low of 1.29 in 2003.
However, opposition from the Japan Nursing Association to lowering the barriers has been stiff.
"FTA negotiations focus on specific sectors and it is easy for the matter to become politicised," said Ken-Ichi Takayasu, a senior economist at Japan Research Institute, a think tank.
Advisory panels to the government have repeatedly recommended that Japan ease its barriers to letting in skilled workers in a variety of sectors, and last month another such committee broached an even touchier topic — unskilled foreign labour.
Japanese business executives are urging the government to move faster on FTAs as one way to help ease the entry of the foreign labourers they need.
"Businesses know there will be a labour shortage in the future," said Japan Research Institute’s Takayasu.
"They are saying ’get a move on’ with FTAs, but politically it is difficult, so there is a gap."
(Additional reporting by Rosemarie Francisco in Manila and Teruaki Ueno in Tokyo)