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July 2014, Volume 21, Number 3

Japan, Korea

There were about 720,000 foreign workers in Japan in 2012, including 137,000 foreign trainees, three-fourths of whom were Chinese. Many arrive in Japan in debt because of payments they must make in their countries of origin to get trainee jobs in Japan that typically pay $8 an hour.

The US criticized Japan's trainee program in its 2014 Human Rights report, noting that many trainees pay high fees in China, often $7,000 or more. Because they are trainees, the foreigners do not have to be paid Japan's minimum wage, even though many work full time.

Employers want more foreigners to be admitted under the Industrial Trainee and Technical Internship Program, which was created in 1993, and the maximum duration of stay for trainees raised from the current three years to five years. Construction employers, who say that 20 percent of construction workers are over 60, say they need more than their current 15,000 trainees to prepare infrastructure for the 2020 summer Olympics.

In April 2014, the government agreed that construction trainees who completed three years in trainee status earning about $1,200 a month could leave as required but later return to Japan for three years as regular workers entitled to regular construction salaries.

A March 2014 Yomuiri poll found that 10 percent of Japanese would accept low-skilled foreigners as workers, but 90 percent were opposed, citing fears of increased crime. Over 85 percent of Japanese favored more women joining the labor force rather than admitting low-skilled migrant workers.

There are relatively few unauthorized foreigners in Japan. In spring 2014, the government estimated 6,000 "overstayers," down from a peak 250,000 in the late 1990s.

Economic Partnership Agreements signed with Indonesia and the Philippines in 2008 have brought 750 nurses from these countries to Japan between 2008 and 2014. In order to be recognized as nurses in Japan, the foreigners must take a test in Japanese. A quarter pass the exam.

Japan's unemployment rate fell to 3.5 percent in May 2014, the lowest rate since 1997. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced reforms to speed the Japanese growth rate, expected to be one percent in 2015 after failing to exceed one percent for most of the past decade. In addition to reducing the corporate tax rate and increasing labor market flexibility, Abe wants to encourage more Japanese women to work for wages and allow the entry of more foreign trainees.

Korea. Foreign workers are admitted to Korea under the Employment Permit System, introduced in 2003 and since 2007 the only way that most Korean employers can hire low-skilled guest workers. Ordinary EPS workers from 15 Asian countries get three-year E-9 non-professional employment visas, while Special EPS workers (mostly ethnic Koreans from China) receive five-year H-2 working visit visas.

At the end of 2012, there were 238,800 E-9 visa holders and 230,200 H-2 visa holders in Korea. In addition, there were an estimated 63,400 E-9 visa holders who illegally overstayed in Korea, meaning that a sixth of those admitted with E-9 visas were illegally in Korea.

A 2014 ILO survey of 200 Korean employers who hire E-9 migrants found that the average age of their workers was 39. The 200 employers hired an average nine migrant workers, mostly men with nine years of schooling and under age 30. Most migrants earned between one million ($965) and 1.7 million ($1,600) won a month (the Korean minimum wage is 5,210 won ($5) an hour in 2014, but most migrants earn more than the minimum wage because they work overtime hours).

Most of the Korean employers who responded, half of whom are in manufacturing, were satisfied with the skills of migrants. Many would like improvements in the online system that allows employers to select migrants while they are still in their country of origin; employer-worker interviews are often conducted via Skype with translators.

Migrants must pass a test of the Korean language and health and other checks before being placed on lists from which Korean employers select migrant workers.

Migrants from Nepal, Philippines, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Vietnam were interviewed in the ILO survey. They reported average recruitment costs of $685, less than the $927 that the Korean HRD estimated to be average worker-paid costs to get to Korea. Migrants are supposed to receive pre-departure training, but a fourth said they did not receive any such training.

Most migrants receive written contracts after they arrive in Korea, not in their countries of origin, and some say that the contracts are not in a language that they understand. Most employers do not have formal or transparent systems to handle migrant complaints, and 10 percent of migrants reported making a complaint, usually about wages.