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October 2011, Volume 18, Number 4

Japan, Korea

Japan's 2.2 million foreign residents in 2010 were 1.7 percent of Japan's 127 million residents. Almost a third of Japan's foreign residents are Chinese who arrived in the past two decades. Another 30 percent are Koreans, mostly descendents of Koreans brought to Japan when Korea was a Japanese colony before 1945.

The Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act of 1990 limits low-skilled migration into Japan, but makes exceptions for descendents of Japanese who emigrated to North and South America in the early 1900s. Many so-called Nikkei are Brazilian and Peruvian citizens who moved to Japan to work in small- and medium-sized enterprises during the 1990s; some have returned to Latin America because of the 2008-09 recession and Brazil?s booming economy. Chinese trainees work-and-learn for less than Japan's minimum wage in many small factories.

Japan is projected to have one of the world's fastest aging populations. With its labor force shrinking, some analysts believe that Japan will have to admit foreign health-care workers to care for its elderly. Japan launched work-and-train programs for nurses and caregivers from Indonesian (August 2008) and the Philippines (May 2009) under trade rather than immigration laws. These so-called Economic Partnership Agreements allow Indonesian and Filipino nurses and caregivers to be matched with Japanese host hospitals and care institutions by the agency JICWELS.

The nurses and caregivers who are matched with Japanese institutions receive six months of Japanese language training in Japan and then work in their host institution, receiving the same wages and benefits as their Japanese co-workers. The Japanese host institution must bear the cost of training, which has reduced the number of foreigners they are willing to accept. For example, 289 Indonesians applied in 2010, Japanese institutions made 138 offers, and 105 Indonesians arrived in Japan.

Foreign nurses can stay in Japan for three years. However, to renew their work permits for another three years, they must pass the Japanese nursing exam, which is given once a year; if they fail the nursing exam three times, foreign nurses must leave Japan immediately. In 2009, no foreign nurses passed the exam, in 2010 three of 284 passed and in 2011, 16 of 398 passed. [Foreign caregivers have one chance to pass their exam after three years in Japan].

The health-care worker experience suggests that it may not be easy to introduce foreigners into the Japanese health-care system under EPS-style agreements, which make foreigners more expensive than Japanese nurses and caregivers. Furthermore, since foreigners receive the same wages as their Japanese co-workers, some can achieve savings targets in three years and may not want to stay in Japan another three years, so that Japanese host institutions have to recruit, train, and employ another Filipino or Indonesian.

Korea. Korea has admitted migrant workers from 15 Asian nations under the Employment Permit System since 2004. Korea is a preferred destination for many Asian migrant workers because wages are relatively high, at least $1,000 a month for low-skilled workers, compared to $200 to $300 a month in many Gulf oil exporting countries.

Potential migrants must pass a test of Korean, the Test of Proficiency in Korean (TOPIK), to be put on recruitment lists maintained by government agencies in sending countries. Korean employers select workers from these lists and, after health and other checks, workers go to Korea with three-year contracts.

The Korean government in 2010 allowed EPS migrant workers (E-9 visas) to extend their maximum stay from three to five years. However, some migrants run away from their employers or remain after their contracts expire so that they can continue to earn high Korean wages. Korean employers who do not report runaways or hire unauthorized migrants can be fined up to $20,000, and unauthorized migrants can be fined 40 million won and imprisoned for a year.

Vietnamese, about a quarter of the foreign workers admitted under the EPS, are considered hard workers but prone to run away from their employers soon after arrival and overstay when their contracts end. In September 2011, it was estimated that 15 percent of the 60,000 Vietnamese in Korea were unauthorized.

There were 1.6 million Koreans working on farms in 2010; two-thirds of Korean farmers are 65 and older. Korean farmers want more EPS migrant workers, but the government says that many migrants run away from the farm to which they are assigned and move to cities. Farmers provide migrant workers with housing, food, and about $900 a month.

Admissions of EPS workers peaked at 132,000 in 2008. The Korean government reduced the quota to 34,000 new entries in 2009 and 2010, and 48,000 in 2011. The 2011 quota provides up to 40,000 EPS migrants for manufacturing; 1,600 for construction; 4,500 for agriculture; and 1,750 for fisheries. In addition, Korea admits ethnic Koreans from China with H-2 visas; there were 303,000 H-2 visa holders in 2011.