Japan looking to allow more foreigners to stay indefinitely in a major immigration policy shift

Of note:

In a major shift for a country long closed to immigrants, Japan is looking to allow foreigners in certain blue-collar jobs to stay indefinitely starting as early as the 2022 fiscal year, a justice ministry official said on Thursday.

Under a law that took effect in 2019, a category of “specified skilled workers” in 14 sectors such as farming, construction and sanitation have been allowed to stay for up to five years, but without their family members.

The government had been looking to ease those restrictions, which had been cited by companies as among reasons that they were hesitant to hire such help.

If the revision takes effect, such workers — many from Vietnam and China — would be allowed to renew their visas indefinitely and bring their families with them, as the other category of more skilled foreigners are allowed to do now.

Immigration has long been taboo in Japan as many prize ethnic homogeneity, but pressure has mounted to open up its borders due to an acute labor shortage given its dwindling and ageing population.

“As the shrinking population becomes a more serious problem and if Japan wants to be seen as a good option for overseas workers, it needs to communicate that it has the proper structure in place to welcome them,” Toshihiro Menju, managing director of think tank Japan Center for International Exchange, told Reuters.

The 2019 law was meant to attract some 345,000 “specified skilled workers” over five years, but the intake has hovered at around 3,000 per month before the Covid-19 pandemic sealed the borders, according to government data.

As of late 2020, Japan housed 1.72 million foreign workers, out of a total population of 125.8 million and just 2.5% of its working population.

Source: Japan looking to allow more foreigners to stay indefinitely in a major immigration policy shift

Singapore Was A Shining Star In COVID-19 Control — Until It Wasn’t

Another example how socioeconomic and immigrant status affects COVID-19 infection rates:

Early on in the coronavirus pandemic, Singapore was praised as a shining example of how to handle the new virus. The World Health Organization pointed out that Singapore’s aggressive contact tracing allowed the city-state to quickly identify and isolate any new cases. It quickly shut down clusters of cases and kept most of its economy — and its schools — open. Through the beginning of April, Singapore had recorded fewer than 600 cases.

By the end of April, however, the case count exceeded 17,000. And not only is all of Singapore now under a strict lockdown, but it has the most coronavirus cases in Southeast Asia.

The vast majority of these cases are in the overcrowded dormitories that house more than 300,000 of Singapore’s roughly 1 million foreign workers — and the number of cases is expected to continue to rise in the coming weeks.

“We have started our testing with the dormitories where there were a high number of cases detected,” Singapore’s health minister, Gan Kim Yong, said in a virtual press briefing this week.

Singapore ordered a lockdown on April 7 in response to an uptick in cases in the general population — and then began to find a significant number of cases in the dorms.

Gan says Singapore is now testing more than 3,000 migrant workers a day but hopes to expand that number. The virus is spreading so rapidly in the dormitories, however, that the Health Ministry hasn’t been able to test all of the suspected cases.

“For dormitories where the assessed risk of infection is extremely high, our efforts are focused on isolating those who are symptomatic even without a confirmed COVID-19 test,” Gan says. “This allows us to quickly provide medical care to these patients.”

Singapore is a small city-state with a population of just under 6 million inhabitants. On a per capita basis, it’s the second-richest country in Asia.

But its economy relies heavily on young men from Bangladesh, India and other countries who work jobs in construction and manufacturing. Singapore has no minimum wage for foreign or domestic employees. The foreign workers’ salaries can be as low as US$250 per month, but a typical salary is $500 to $600 a month.

Speaking to the media, Gan credited extensive screening in the dorms with finding many workers who are infected with SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, but who didn’t appear sick.

“So far, the majority of the cases here have had relatively mild disease or no symptoms. And they do not require extensive medical intervention,” Gan said. “About 30% require closer medical observation due to the underlying health conditions or because of old age.”

As of this week, only a handful of the migrant workers — fewer than two dozen — were in intensive care units.

The city-state is setting up thousands of what it calls “community care beds” in convention centers and other public buildings to isolate and treat coronavirus patients. The hope is that most of the cases can be managed by medical staff in these temporary wards, rather than in hospitals. So far the city has 10,000 community care beds and plans to expand to 20,000 by mid-June.

It’s no surprise that the migrant workers are now being infected, says Mohan Dutta, a professor at Massey University in New Zealand who has done research on these migrant laborers. He says conditions in the dorms put the workers at significant risk of catching a respiratory disease like COVID-19. There are 12 to 20 bunk beds per room.

And even though some of the workers are deemed “essential,” most are no longer allowed to leave the dormitories. “There is little room to move around. They have little room to store their things, which really contributes to this sense of the rooms being unhygienic,” says Dutta.

Dutta, who founded CARE, the Center for Culture-Centered Approach to Research and Evaluation, at the National University of Singapore in 2012, with a focus on marginalized communities, has just published a paper on migrant workers in Singapore during this pandemic.

He says many of them told him they are concerned about whether they’ll get paid during the lockdown (Singapore’s Ministry of Manpower insists they will) and about the overcrowding and lack of sanitation facilities in the dormitories.

Dutta says that in many dormitories, 100 workers share a block of five toilets and five shower stalls.

“There is this sense of panic and fear, and part of that is related to this sense of not being able to move outside of the room,” he says. “Everyone is pretty much stuck in the room at such close proximity.”

Singapore’s Health Ministry has moved aggressively to try to address the coronavirus outbreaks in the housing blocks. The government is trying to find alternative accommodations for people in the hardest-hit dorms, but Dutta says it’s impossible to come up with safe, short-term lodging for more than 300,000 workers.

But he does believe there could be long-term changes that would help the workers. And Dutta hopes this outbreak will force Singapore to examine how it treats this often overlooked population, bringing major changes in how foreign workers are housed and treated.

Meanwhile, the explosion of cases in Singapore over the last three weeks has remained primarily among foreign workers. For example, on May 1 there were 11 new cases reported among Singapore’s permanent residents and 905 new infections among the workers residing in the dorms.

Michael Merson, the head of the SingHealth Duke-NUS Global Health Institute in Singapore, says it’s unlikely the outbreaks in the dormitories will spill over to the rest of the city.

“There’s very little mixing between the foreign workers and the rest of the population,” Merson says. He’s confident that Singapore’s health officials will be able to isolate the infected workers and give them, in his words, “the best medical care possible.”

Nonetheless, the Singaporean government has extended the lockdown for the entire city-state until at least June 1.

Kenney Op-Ed: Foreign workers in Canada: Let’s separate the facts from the myths

From anecdotes (“”There are tens of thousands of employers who tell me that they would go out of business if they couldn’t find people to fill those jobs.”) to Minister Kenney’s more evidence-based approach announcing the changes to the Temporary Foreign Workers program.

His op-ed is particularly revealing:

Several recent studies have come to this conclusion, suggesting that over-reliance on the program’s general low-skilled stream has prevented wages from rising in some low-paid occupations in parts of Western Canada, and may have reduced labour mobility. For example, overall median wages in Alberta have gone up by an average of 31 per cent since 2006, but wages in the province’s food services sector, a heavy user of the program, increased by only 8 per cent. This kind of distortion is unacceptable.

Former Bank of Canada governor Mark Carney put it well last year when he said “We don’t want an over-reliance on temporary foreign workers for lower-skilled jobs, which prevent the wage adjustment mechanism from making sure that Canadians are paid higher wages, but also so that firms improve their productivity as necessary… The intent of the government’s review is to ensure that this is used for transition, for those higher-skilled gaps that exist and can hold our economy back.”

Foreign workers in Canada: Let’s separate the facts from the myths – The Globe and Mail.

Lots of coverage on the changes, largely targeted towards abuse of the program for the fast food service industry. CBC overview on the changes, Changes to Temporary Foreign Worker Program include limits and fines, Macleans (Temporary foreign worker rules reformed, but tensions remain) and the Government briefing package with the key message of Overhauling the Temporary Foreign Worker Program.

Initial commentary of interest:

Campbell Clark in the Globe, makes some valid points in Reforms to foreign worker program are welcome, but why the long wait?:

To their credit, they produced a serious plan. The reforms provide greater incentives for employers to find low-wage workers at home by raising application fees and limiting the percentage of each company’s work force that can be brought in from abroad. The caps will be phased in over two years. And Mr. Kenney promised to increase transparency by reporting the numbers for each employer.

Even the style used to unveil the reforms was refreshingly grown-up for a government that typically prefers slogans to explanations. The ministers briefed journalists on technical details, and did a talk-till-you-drop press conference explaining their rationale. They acknowledged some businesses might be hurt, but said companies should turn more to recruitment, training and wage increases. Mr. Kenney said he wants to return the program to what it is supposed to be: a last resort.

But there is also the past. Should the Conservatives have woken to the problems before? “No,” Mr. Kenney said. The Conservatives, he explained, accepted the policy in place when they took power as “normal.”

That is a frank admission. Governments do not look under every rock for worms. But it is a tad short on mea culpa. Under the Conservatives, the number of low-wage workers – those not in special programs for nannies or farm workers, or covered by agreements like NAFTA – grew from a few thousand to tens of thousands. Mr. Harper’s government spent to speed up processing for TFWs. If it is broken now, they should have fixed it sooner.

Helpfully, to the Government’s communications strategy, negative reaction from Alberta and the tone-deaf Canadian Federation of Independent Business (Alberta decries changes to foreign worker program):

“This is an appalling over-reaction,” said Dan Kelly, president of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, which has supported the Conservative government’s economic approach in the past. “This will be a serious knock on this government’s small-business credentials to have taken the kind of move that they just did.”

Restaurants Canada, which represents restaurant owners, predicts the formula, combined with new $1,000 user fees, will force some restaurants to close, while others will need to raise prices to cover higher wages.

“I think there are going to be business casualties,” said Joyce Reynolds, Restaurants Canada’s vice-president of government affairs. “Are Canadians prepared to pay double what they pay now for a steak?”

Andrew Coyne starts off with a somewhat predictable more libertarian economic approach in Hiring foreign workers in Canada is a crime, but outsourcing overseas is fine but ends up arguing for a pathway to citizenship:

And the reforms themselves? They will be widely praised, and should succeed in moving the controversial program off the front pages, adding to Mr. Kenney’s reputation as the safest pair of hands in cabinet. Unfortunately, that does not make them good policy.

Consider an employer in the manufacturing sector, who finds himself unable to attract enough workers for certain kinds of unskilled labour, at least at the going wage. He is entirely at liberty to outsource the work to a company overseas, paying a fraction of the wages he would have had to pay his Canadian employees. He can move the whole plant offshore if he likes, laying off every one of its current employees, and import the product he sells rather than make it here. ….

This is the crime of which these [food service] employers, whom Mr. Kenney vows to harass and punish with $100,000 fines, are guilty: operating a business while in the service sector. They “cost” no more jobs than their manufacturing counterparts. It’s just that the hard-working, low-wage foreigners they employ are in our midst, and visible to us, not toiling away in some sweatshop overseas we never see. …

It certainly won’t help the foreign workers themselves, who will now be subject, as a support group, the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change, put it, to a kind of “mass deportation order.” Many had hoped to convert their demonstrable fitness for life in Canada into permanent residency, and ultimately citizenship. Those hopes will now be dashed.

Yet if any reform were needed, that remains the more promising route. If temporary foreign workers were not temporary, they would no longer be foreign. They would not be “taking jobs” from Canadians. They would be Canadians.

John Ivison sides with the CFIB and other small businesses in With the temporary foreign worker changes Jason Kenney has done a great deal to insulate himself:

The Employment Minister has certainly gone to great lengths to insulate himself from more incendiary allegations of abuse. Unfortunately, the risks will be borne by those small businesses that are about to see their costs soar.

Tom Walkom from the Star, from a different perspective, ends up in the same place (Jason Kenney’s temporary foreign worker changes not enough):

Public pressure has forced Kenney to make the arrangement seem more palatable. But it is not. If we need more foreign labourers, let them come as full-fledged immigrants.

If paying Canadian fast-food workers a decent wage means we must shell out more for a cup of coffee, so be it.