Monday, April 11, 2011

On sending our workers to Japan

The Independent
April 11th, 2011
M. Serajul Islam

I read with interest in one leading English daily about experts suggesting that the Government should take immediate steps to enter the Japanese manpower market. They have said that as a consequence of the earthquake and tsunami devastation, Japan would require to undertake massive reconstruction work for which they would need to import manpower from abroad. They have said that the depletion of the ME manpower market has made it necessary to look at Japan urgently together with renewed efforts in Malaysia.

While appreciating the concerns of the experts, there are issues of history, culture and policy concerning Japan that they have overlooked. In fact, they may not even be aware of it. Japan is one of the very few countries in world’s history that was never colonized. In fact, for 200 years up to the middle of the 19th century, Japan pursued a policy of isolation. Although Japan later interacted with the outside world, there are in Japan many widely held misconceptions about foreigners, most of them uncomplimentary.

In the 1950s, Japan’s economic situation was desperate. It did not have any other resources other than human to reconstruct a war ravaged country. That destruction was epitomized by the atom bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Japan developed through the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s virtually on its own and emerged as the second strongest economy in the world. Japan did not depend on any help from outside in its development in terms of manpower. True the last earthquake has been the worst in its recent history due to the accompanying tsunami causing damages worth US $ 235 billion. But Japan overcame one in Kobe in 1995 where the damages were worth US$ 200 billion at a time when the economy was doing worse than now entirely on its own. There is no doubt that it will also tackle the recent one also on its own without any need to import manpower.

In recent years, Japanese population has shown a declining growth and in many sectors in the small and medium enterprises, the country has faced a serious shortage of manpower for a long time now. As Japan became affluent, people, particularly the new generation, became less and less interested in serving in these sectors that added to the dearth of manpower in these enterprises. Nevertheless Japan did not consider opening its door to manpower from other countries, largely because the homogenous Japanese society did not feel comfortable with foreigners.

Instead Japan introduced a scheme for the SMEs through the Japan Industrial Training Cooperation Organization (JITCO) to bring to the country people to work as trainees and apprentices for a total of 3 years. Under this scheme, Japan fulfilled a small part of the need for manpower in the SMEs and also its duty as a responsible developed country to help developing country train its manpower. JITCO is a Government programme that was introduced in 1991 by five Ministries including the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Justice. Over the years, it has brought to Japan thousands of workers from many developing countries in Asia including China, Vietnam, etc. In 2005, Bangladesh also signed with Japan, the JITCO agreement.

Unfortunately, the JITCO agreement was not activated in Bangladesh till only very recently. Why it was not activated is in itself a sad story that shows government inertia when it comes to helping people. The JITCO Agreement is designed to bring to Japan workers from developing countries like Bangladesh in about 60 designated SMEs, like welding, packaging, agricultural etc. The SMEs of Japan themselves interview and select the workers in the sending country. They l train them in basic Japanese language either in the sending country or in Japan. They pay for the workers’ air travel and even a monthly amount to the workers’ family for security for losing an earning member to the JITCO programme. In Japan, the worker works as a trainee at first and then as an apprentice up to 3 years.

The worker under the JITCO programme is not allowed to overstay and must return to the sending country. In the three years, an average worker can save Taka 15 to Taka 20 lakhs (by 2005 estimates when Bangladesh entered the JITCO programme) together with training and experience in world’s second strongest economy. The JITCO agreement does not allow any authority or agency to charge the workers even a single cent and also prohibits the manpower agencies from entering into the programme. The agreement does not limit the sending country on number of workers they send to Japan.

I was personally involved in the signing of the JITCO agreement. Later when I returned from Japan in 2006, I met Ministers and officials before this Government came to office, urging them to activate the programme. I could not believe that any sensible government would let such an agreement lapse. In one of my meetings with senior officers of the Expatriate Affairs, I heard one officer ask what JITCO really offered to them. For this officer, the fact that Bangladeshis would be trained in Japan for 3 years, would not have to pay a cent and return home with Taka 15 to Taka 20 lacs were not good enough reasons! In contrast, our workers who go to the ME pay up to Taka 2 lacs to manpower agents to work under inhuman conditions for a paltry salary. Our Expatriate Ministry favoured the latter and not the JITCO programme till recently, perhaps because there is something for them in sending workers to the ME through the manpower agencies and none under the JITCO programme.

The present Government must be commended for staring the JITCO programme although more than 4 valuable years have been lost during which we could have sent so many workers to Japan. Nevertheless, the JITCO programme is not manpower business as there seems to be the understanding of the experts. Also, there is little possibility that Japan would open its manpower sector to overseas workers soon, although in selective fields, many foreigners work in Japan under special visa status.

This does not mean that Japan would not open its doors to overseas manpower in future. The possibility is always there. This is why the JITCO programme is so important. When Japan opens its manpower sector, it would take those first who have worked in Japan under JITCO programme and have returned home. This is why we need to run the JITCO programme with care, follow its provisions and wait till Japan one day opens its manpower sector to foreign workers to be able to send our workers to Japan under manpower export business. Till that happens, utmost care should be taken to keep the JITCO programme out of the each of the manpower agents as the experts are suggesting. The JITCO agreement demands it.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan.

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