Japan Gambles on Guest Workers as U.S. Poised to Double a Cheap Labor Visa Program

In a surprising departure from Japan’s low-immigration history, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe recently agreed to accept more foreign nationals into the country’s labor force. As Abe’s bill moves through Japan’s parliament, promises abound to keep strict controls to assure that unskilled migrants will return home when their five-year visas expire. Skilled workers, who can bring their families, may extend their stays. Similar to the U.S., Japan’s low-skilled guest workers will be employed in agriculture, construction and nursing care.

Aware of the vigorous political objection to expanding foreign labor, including some skeptics from Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party, the Prime Minister is cautious to exclude references to “immigration,” largely unpopular in Japan, when discussing his controversial new program. Abe’s administration has issued comforting statements about how closely monitored the guest worker program will be, and issued assurances that the visa holders will return home upon the completion of their authorized period. Stateside, Americans have heard the same empty promises for decades.

To critics of the numerous U.S. guest worker programs, specifically the H visas like the H-1B, H-2A, and H-2B issued for high tech, agriculture and unskilled non-ag, Japan is whistling past the graveyard if it expects to limit visa growth. Even before the foreign worker programs have launched, Singapore-based Capital Economics analyst Marcel Thieliant, a Japan-specialist, called for more than doubling the total admitted. Looking ahead, Thieliant predicted – 100% accurately – “There’s no turning back now.”

Japanese officials have only to look toward the U.S. to see their nation’s guest worker future. During Congress’ always-perilous lame duck session, a group of U.S. GOP senators and one U.S. representative, including senators Chuck Grassley (Iowa), Thom Tillis (North Carolina), Mike Rounds (South Dakota) and Rep. Andy Harris (Maryland), agreed to move forward a proposal to double the annual H-2B visa total from 66,000 to 132,000. Like most visas, the H-2B for nonagricultural labor has a lengthy employer fraud and abuse history which the General Accountability Office documented. Importantly, the GAO found that labor shortage claims, similar to those currently made in Japan, did not hold up under scrutiny.

Because overseas labor toils on the cheap, corporate America always demands more guest workers regardless of economic conditions. The 2013 Gang of Eight bill sought over ten years to give lifelong employment authorization documents to 30 million new lawful permanent residents. At the time, unemployment was at 7.6%.

Even though the October Bureau of Labor Statistics reflected a 3.7% unemployment rate, 6.1 million people were active job-seekers, and another 5.3 million not in the labor force indicated they want to work; a total 11.4 million want jobs. Today, the labor participation rate is down to 62.9% and shows no signs of rebounding to a healthy level. For U.S.-born blacks and U.S.-born Hispanics, 38% and 36%, respectively, are jobless. Congress’ dismissive response to the plethora of dismal unemployment data is to invite in more guest workers.

Abe will soon get a rude awakening. As Americans learned the hard way, guest worker programs only go in one direction – upward to benefit big business – last longer than originally anticipated and inevitably hurt the lower income earners.