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Is Japan the next Saudi?

During the oil boom from the ’70s to ’80s, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia tapped Filipino construction companies to build its infrastructure from desert sands. These companies, aided by the Ministry of Labor during my father’s time as labor secretary, brought our best construction workers and engineers as pioneers in overseas employment. For more than 40 years, Saudi Arabia remains the No. 1 destination country for more than a million overseas Filipino workers (OFWs).

The Kingdom, however, is undergoing somewhat radical political and economic changes. Its Saudization program is deemed irreversible with thousands of Filipinos forced to go home with their jobs offered to Saudi nationals. The steep drop in oil prices and heavy defense spending took its toll on government-funded construction projects that led to massive retrenchment of foreign workers. Until now, thousands of Filipino workers associated with Saudi Oger and MMG construction firms have yet to receive their end-of-service benefits, as well as a considerable amount of back pay since their retrenchment more than two years ago.

After visiting Saudi Arabia in October last year, Labor Secretary Silvestre H. Bello III declared a 30 percent drop in the deployment of OFWs to the Kingdom with the ongoing Saudization program. The labor secretary went to Saudi Arabia to oversee the repatriation of 1,473 displaced OFWs from Azmeel Contracting Corp. He also noted that Saudi nationals have taken over the jobs of Filipino workers in the retail sector.

Enter Japan. Among industry players, the country that most excites our recruitment agencies is Japan. From farm workers to hotel workers, Japan is in need of employees in almost all categories. Unlike in Saudi Arabia, which is very much open in its labor migration policies and programs, Japan is more cautious, preferring to dub its foreign workers as “trainees” or “technical interns”. Whatever the description, there is much talk of Japan being the next Saudi Arabia for our OFWs, mainly because its aging population has led to a severe human resource shortage.

Japan recently passed a controversial law that would enable skilled migrant workers to extend their stay from five to 10 years and bring in family members with a path
toward Japanese citizenship. All foreign workers to be considered under this new law would have to pass a language competency and skills assessment tests. The law would take effect this April. Meanwhile, technical interns, including those from the Philippines, are now eligible for employment as long as basic language requirements are met.

Compared to Saudi Arabia, Japan is not used to having foreign workers in such great number. Unfortunately, in some sectors such as construction and nursing care, the ratio between job vacancies and local job applicants is 4:1. The ultra-conservative Japanese parliament felt it had no other recourse but to reluctantly open its doors wider to migrant workers in order to address the critical shortage of workers in 14 industries.  The number of foreign workers needed by Japan is sizable. For caregivers alone, the recruitment industry notes that at most 800,000 would be needed to look after the elderly.

For Elsa Villa, president of the Philippine Association of Service Exporters Inc. or Pasei, there is a stark difference between Japan and Saudi Arabia, aside from the obvious cultural and geographic differences. “Japan has a different economic status than Saudi Arabia, thus, a different need for migrant workers. Also, Japan’s domestic politics that governs migration is entirely different from Saudi Arabia whose openness makes foreign labor welcome.”

Nora Braganza, the president and one of the founders of Jepca, said that the Philippine government and recruitment industry must work hand-in-hand to protect the lucrative and dynamic Japan labor market from those who wish to exploit it for short-term gain.

Jepca stands for Japan Employment Providers of the Philippines and Consultants Association, a POEA-recognized industry association. “We are thinking of proposing to the POEA that a prequalification and certification process be adopted to ensure utmost professionalism among recruitment agencies with a keen interest in the Japan market.”

Administrator Bernard Olalia of the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration anticipates that Japan will be the next biggest labor destination country for Filipinos. An average Filipino caregiver in Japan can earn upward of P50,000 net of taxes. Once a Filipino worker is accepted as a technical intern, the Japanese principal will shoulder the tuition fee for his or her language training here in the Philippines.

Japan’s stable economy, lucrative salary scales, and proximity to the Philippines make it a better option for our skilled workers to consider. To keep this market secure and stable, the POEA and our Philippine Embassy, especially the office of the labor attaché, must streamline processes. Vietnam, Cambodia and Indonesia are considered our main competitors for the Japan market. We don’t need to diminish our safeguards for the protection of OFWs, but we certainly need to speed up the process in deploying qualified workers to a first-world country such as Japan.

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