Japan's ruling parties forced a bill through the House of Representatives on Tuesday that would open the door to foreign blue-collar workers, despite concerns about insufficient deliberation.
In a last-minute effort to block its passage, the main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan and others submitted a no-confidence motion against Justice Minister Takashi Yamashita, who oversees the issue. But it was voted down by the ruling camp and a small opposition party.
The bill, which it is estimated will bring hundreds of thousands of foreign workers to Japan over a five-year period through the creation of new visa statuses, was cleared by a lower house committee in the evening before a vote in a plenary session.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's Liberal Democratic Party and its junior coalition partner Komeito want the legislation to be enacted by the end of the ongoing Diet session on Dec 10 and for the scheme to commence in April next year to tackle manpower constraints caused by Japan's aging population and falling birthrate.
The ruling coalition is aiming to launch deliberations in the upper house on Wednesday, the day before Abe is scheduled to leave for the Group of 20 summit in Argentina.
Japan has so far basically granted working rights only to highly skilled foreigners such as professors and doctors. But in a drastic policy shift, the bill is expected to allow many blue-collar workers from overseas in sectors identified as suffering from labor shortages, ranging from nursing care to the hospitality and construction industries.
Many foreigners already work at construction sites and convenience stores in Japan, but they are often students who are working part-time or so-called technical interns who are staying in the country under the government-sponsored job training program.
The ruling parties agreed in talks Monday with the small opposition Japan Innovation Party to tweak the bill, with the new legislation to be reviewed two years after coming into force, instead of the originally decided three years.
But many other opposition parties have continued to strongly resist the bill, with Kazunori Yamanoi, a member of the Democratic Party for the People, saying it is "full of problems" as it appears it will be possible to change the system in any way later.
The government has presented an estimate for the number of foreign workers who would enter the country under the new system, but Diet deliberations have exposed the vague basis for the figures.
Opposition parties have also expressed doubt about the new system, with the existing technical intern training program already facing criticism for exploiting foreigners.
Controversy was also fueled by the misleading presentation of government survey results on foreign trainees who quit their jobs. The Justice Ministry stated that 87 percent had left "in pursuit of better pay," although 67 percent of the respondents actually replied that they had left because of "low wages."
Under the envisioned system, two types of residence status for non-Japanese workers are expected to be created across 14 sectors.
The first type, valid for up to five years, will be given to workers with certain skills but will not allow their family members to accompany them.
Technical interns could obtain the first type of status after completing their five-year terms, meaning they would not be able to live with their family members for up to 10 years in total.
The Japan Federation of Bar Associations has urged the government to review the plan so they could bring their family members to the country.
The second type of status will be for foreign nationals needed in fields requiring higher skills. The government does not plan to cap the number of visa renewals, opening up the possibility for them to live permanently in the country.
The government estimates Japan would accept up to 47,550 foreign workers in the first year, of which more than half would be former trainees under the technical internship program.
Over five years, the country is projected to take in up to 345,150 workers from overseas.