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Japan to loosen strict immigration rules amid labour shortage

Government to allow in blue-collar workers as businesses from hotels to construction struggle to find staff.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's cabinet approved draft legislation on Friday to allow in more blue-collar workers from overseas and deal with severe labour shortages, in a controversial policy shift for immigration-shy Japan.

The revised law would create two new visa categories for foreigners in industries where it has become increasingly difficult to find workers and staff.

While not spelt out, more than a dozen sectors are likely to be included from farming and construction to hotels and nursing care.

Japan has long maintained a strict immigration policy limiting the intake of foreigners, but as the country's population ages business is battling the tightest labour market in decades.

Despite misgivings within Abe's Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), parliament is likely to adopt the revisions in the face of intense pressure from industry, although opposition parties could delay.

More accepting

Justice Minister Takashi Yamashita on Thursday ruled out a numerical cap, but media said 500,000 blue-collar workers could be allowed in over time. There are now around 1.28 million foreign workers in Japan, making up about 2 percent of the workforce.

Workers in the first visa category must have a certain level of skills and Japanese language ability. They would not be allowed to bring family members for a stay of up to five years.

Those in the second category are expected to have more advanced skills and would be allowed to bring their family and eventually get residency.

Japan has grown more accepting of foreign labour, but the focus has been on professionals and the highly-skilled.

For blue-collar workers, employers mostly rely on a 'technical trainees' system and foreign students working part-time, but critics say such loopholes are abused.

Policy shift?

LDP legislators signed off on the bill after heated party debate. Many expressed concerns about crime and the potentially negative effect on wages. Opposition politicians accuse the government of undue haste without protecting foreign workers' rights.

Abe has said the changes do not constitute an "immigration policy", out of an apparent desire not to upset his conservative backers. Many experts differ.

"I think this is a de facto shift to an immigration policy," Hidenori Sakanaka, a former head of the Tokyo Immigration Bureau, told Reuters.

A recent survey by the Yomiuri newspaper showed 51 percent of Japanese voters favoured letting in more unskilled foreign workers and about 43 percent backed recognising "immigration" - about the same percentage as those opposed.

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