Half-cocked foreign health worker scheme has a long way to go

Japan is wavering over its acceptance of foreign nurses and care workers. Filipino nurses and care workers have come to Japan in accordance with the Japan-Philippines economic partnership agreement (EPA), but their numbers are far below that initially planned. This is due to the difficulties in obtaining licenses in Japan, and medical and care facilities' reluctance to accept foreign workers as the government has implemented measures to encourage them to accept those who have lost their jobs amid the global recession.

The Philippines is the second country to send trainee nurses and care workers to Japan under a bilateral EPA, following Indonesia. Japan plans to accept up to 1,000 Filipino nurses and care workers as trainees over a two-year period, almost equal to those from Indonesia. The workers are supposed to work at medical and care facilities as trainees after learning Japanese and undergoing introductory courses for six months.

Nurses are allowed to undergo on-the-job training for up to three years, while nursing care workers are permitted to do so for the maximum of four years. If they take state examinations and obtain Japanese licenses, they will be allowed to continue to work in Japan. Those who fail will be ordered to go home.

The number of applicants far outstripped the number of positions available, but the number of those who actually made it to Japan was far smaller than it should have been, due to various problems.

Firstly, it is difficult for foreign workers to obtain licenses in Japan, as they are required to take state examinations in Japanese. The pass rate of state examinations for care worker licenses is around 50 percent even among Japanese applicants, and foreign applicants must learn enough Japanese to sufficiently understand the contents of the examinations.

Secondly, institutions that accept these trainees are required to bear certain financial burdens. The Japanese government foots trainees' travel expenses and costs of undergoing Japanese-language training, but medical and care facilities must pay for subsequent on-the-job training and wages. Bosses are reluctant to accept foreign trainees for fears they will get no return on their investment if they fail the exams.

But the biggest problem is that the government has not yet clarified basic policy on accepting foreign workers. The government maintains that its acceptance of Filipino nurses and care workers is part of the bilateral economic exchange, and not intended to make up for workforce shortages. It has failed to clarify the direction of the bilateral economic exchange in the future, which has discouraged the operators of medical and nursing institutions from accepting foreign workers.

The government estimates that Japan must double the number of care workers by 2025 as the population ages. To that end, Japan must increase the number of care workers by 70,000 to 80,000 each year, but achieving this goal appears unlikely. The time has come when Japan must determine how many foreign workers it should accept and how it should accept them, but discussions on the issue have not even started.

A haphazard approach will be deadlocked in the end. The government is urged to work out basic policy on the acceptance of foreign nurses and care workers and deal with challenges, such as hurdles for accepting them that have already surfaced.