TOKYO - Japanese building contractors are increasingly looking to foreign workers to cover labor shortages plaguing the industry in the wake of reconstruction demand after the 2011 earthquake and ahead of a likely building boom prior to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
Traditionally, many general contractors and subcontractors in Japan were reluctant to employ foreign nationals. "It's not easy for them to acquire technical skills, owing in part to the language barrier," a field work supervisor with a major construction company said of foreign workers.
Under the immigration law, Japanese companies in the construction and dozens other industries can hire foreigners as "technical trainees" for up to three years as part of human resources development and transferring skills and technology to developing countries.
The law was revised in 2009 after a slew of problems were reported, such as employers not paying any compensation to trainees and trainees forced to work long hours under harsh conditions. The revised law requires companies to observe labor laws and sign employment contracts with trainees.
"We often assign safe and easy work to trainees from overseas so that they will not get injured or make errors in complicated work," said an official with a subcontractor based in Tokyo.
Worker shortages, however, have become a serious issue at building sites. "An increasing number of companies are expressing interest in hiring (foreign) trainees," said an executive with a general contractor. A growing number of companies are now assigning foreigners to undertake specialized technical tasks, which is one of the key objectives of the trainee program.
Mukai Corp., a Tokyo-based construction company, has been accepting trainees from Vietnam and has been operating a vocational training school in Vietnam since 2012.
The trainees are chosen through a competitive test where one in three or one in four applicants passes. Trainers from Japan teach through on-the-job training three types of skills -- working in high places, assembling reinforcing steel rods and dealing with molding frames.
The company also offers math and Japanese classes for about four months before sending the trainees to Japan. "General contractors feel safe accepting the trainees who underwent proper training," said the company's chairman, Toshio Mukai.
The trainees who underwent the firm's program are participating in the construction of a 13-story commercial building in Tokyo's Ginza district, a project involving major general contractors. After returning to Vietnam, the trainees are expected to serve as instructors or supervisors for workers in the field.
Companies accepting the trainees are responsible for paying part of their training costs including wages and travel expenses as well as accommodation. Training costs are estimated to be about 7 million yen per apprentice for a three-year program, according to a construction industry group.
Between fiscal 2001 and 2012, a total of 42,557 foreign nationals applied for training in construction, according to the Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry and the Justice Ministry.
In fiscal 2012 alone, the textile industry and the machinery and metal industry each accommodated more than 10,000 trainees, in contrast to about 4,500 in the construction industry.
In March 2013, Japan and Vietnam agreed to cooperate in the development of human resources in the construction sector. "Many young people will come to train (in Japan) from Vietnam" if the program will be expanded, said a land ministry official.
Many government officials, however, are cautious about increasing employment opportunities for foreign nationals without imposing any caps.
In the recession following the 2008 global financial crisis, many foreign workers, mostly from Brazil, lost their jobs. The government ended up shouldering costs for repatriating foreigners without jobs who wanted to return home, as well as paying unemployment benefits.
Builders are no doubt facing worker shortages after public works increased for reconstruction as well as reinforced disaster mitigation projects in the wake of the March 2011 quake and tsunami that primarily affected northeastern Japan.
Japan is also planning a new National Stadium in time for the 2019 Rugby World Cup. Securing workers would be even more difficult once the construction of facilities for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics fully starts.
Construction industry officials are concerned that a large influx of foreign workers would make builders dependent on them permanently. Japanese workers, meanwhile, fear the hiring of lower-wage foreign labor would lead to exert downward pressures on wages overall.
"If the number of (foreign) trainees will be rapidly raised, they may, in reality, be used for manual labor," a person close to the labor movement said.
The trainee program has been a source of labor problems such as employers not providing adequate compensation. There have also been employers killed or injured by disgruntled workers. Critics say the program is a cover for hiring foreigners for simple, hard labor shunned by Japanese workers.
Labor relations in the construction industry are also often more complex because large projects are contracted out to subcontractors, blurring the accountability of employer to employee.
Should the trainee program be expanded to accommodate more foreigners, there will likely be a need for new mechanisms to ensure program participants be compensated adequately and work in safe environments.