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Support services spring up for Japan's foreign workers

Support services for foreign nationals staying in Japan under the Technical Intern Training Program are proliferating as companies grapple with an increasingly acute labour shortage.

Agencies specialising in arranging housing, providing Japanese language lessons and offering other services to trainees are springing up to help. They typically charge around 30,000 yen ($264) a month per trainee.

As Japanese companies hire more foreign trainees, they are becoming increasingly aware of the need to deal with problems such as illegal labour and workers who disappear.

The agencies also help trainees adjust to life in Japan. Demand for support services is likely to continue growing if, as expected, the recently revised immigration control law brings still more foreign workers to the country.

A growing number of staffing agencies that specialise in placing trainees with manufacturers are offering support services. Outsourcing, one such agency, entered the business four years ago. It now has contracts covering around 10,000 oversees trainees, a sixfold increase over the past two years.

Companies that accept trainees must arrange housing for them, but many Japanese property owners are reluctant to take in foreign tenants. Outsourcing helps its clients resolve this difficulty, finding suitable properties and drawing up rental contracts. It also sends Japanese building managers and interpreters, who are either on-site or close at hand to deal with problems as they arise. Having people close by to advise trainees who are having problems "can nip disappearances in the bud, in many cases," said an official with the company.

Outsourcing has about 120 Vietnamese and other foreign-language interpreters. And it offers a broad range of assistance to trainees, including transportation to and from worksites. It teaches them the dos and don'ts of life in Japan -- separating garbage, shopping, Japanese business etiquette -- as well as offering language instruction after they arrive.

Companies pay agencies to provide support services to trainees, not only to free themselves from troublesome tasks but to ensure compliance with laws and regulations. There is "overwhelmingly high" demand for assistance with legal compliance, according to an official at UT Group, a staffing service that specialises in placing factory workers. The Tokyo company launched a foreign worker support service in 2016, charging 40,000 yen per employee per month. It currently tends to the needs of 1,000 workers and aims to double that by next March.

Malicious labour brokers who prey on foreign interns and home-country agencies that charge large sums to act as middlemen with employers are a major problem in Japan's market for foreign temporary labour. Companies wishing to hire foreign trainees often do not know where to look for candidates. UT Group helps these companies by ensuring that mediators are operating legally, asking them to submit documentation authorizing their services.

This year, a number of large Japanese companies were found to have assigned tasks to trainees that they were not authorized to perform under the program.

Supervisors' lack of knowledge about the rules has been blamed for the problem, UT Group aims to help by strictly monitoring trainees, keeping an eye out for acts of fraud by employers regarding overtime hours and other matters.

Companies such as UT Group and Outsourcing are expected to grow as more foreign workers join the workforce in Japan. The recent legal changes include provisions calling for employers or "licensed support entities" to help trainees with life in Japan. Support service providers will register as licensed companies to attract more business.

Tokyo staffing agency Persol Holdings said the company plans to launch a foreign labour management service to meet demand for workers arriving under a new "specified skills" work visa. As this visa category allows workers to switch jobs, demand for job placement assistance is expected to grow.

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