Nepal-Japan jobs deal still stuck
On 21 December 2020, Prakash Parajuli was waiting at the Tribhuvan International Airport to board his flight to Japan. He had secured necessary paperwork for his job there as a caregiver, and was in high spirits at the prospect of starting anew despite the pandemic.
Parajuli is employed under the Japan Government’s Specified Skilled Worker (SSW) residence status. “This is a result of a lot of hard work and patience. For many months, I focused entirely on studying for the Japanese language test,” Parajuli told Nepali Times before he boarded his plane.
After working in Qatar for two years as a cashier with a monthly income of around Rs40,000, he had come home and started looking for fresh migration opportunities. Now, he is set to earn around Rs145,000, excluding overtime and bonuses. “I plan to work very hard and hope to stay long-term in Japan,” he says.
In March 2019, the governments of Nepal and Japan signed a memorandum of cooperation for the SSW residence program. The SSW1 category of the program allows workers to remain in Japan for a maximum of five years, with workers ensured equality of treatment as well as the ability to change employers within the same sector. There is also a longer-term SSW2 category that allows unlimited visa renewals and dependents. In the next five years, a total of 345,000 workers were to be hired from all SSW partner countries.
In addition to the win-win situation that such labour programs afford, by helping 14 sectors address severe worker shortages in super-aging Japan (see figure), it also allows Nepali youth to be gainfully employed at higher earnings in a secure labor market. Nepal had one more reason to be jubilant— it was the second country to sign the agreement with Japan after the Philippines.
But little did we know that almost two years down the road, Parajuli would be just one of the handful of Nepalis who would benefit from this agreement despite the head start.
The agreement was a hybrid of the existing agreements Nepal has with other countries: it was neither a purely government-to-government model like that with South Korea or Israel, nor did it allow recruiters to play a role like the agreements with Malaysia and select Gulf countries. It was signed under a government-to-business model in which the Nepal Government proposed setting up a Japan Unit at the Department of Foreign Employment (DOFE) to oversee all aspects of the SSW implementation.
On the Japan side, the government played a more hands-off role and allowed the private sector to participate including employers, recruiters and support organisations. “This mixed modality is creating widespread confusion as there is a misconception that this is a government-to-government modality, while it isn’t,” says Yuzo Yoshioka, Charge d'Affaires, Embassy of Japan in Nepal.
This government-to-business model envisioned a proactive government that would take on added responsibilities in lieu of the recruiters via the Japan Unit. It was an attempt to ensure that the flawed technical implementation experiences related to the past programs would not be further exacerbated in this model, forcing workers to pay hefty amounts to land in the destination job market. Especially, noting that the Japanese Government did not want to be involved in the cost issue but trusted the involved employer-worker to mutually agree on such details. This was viewed as risky for Nepal, given the trend of rampant malpractices that worsen with the attractiveness of destination countries.
The success of this hybrid model, however, rested on a proactive Japan Unit that imitated the private sector’s strengths in marketing, matching, information sharing and employer engagement. Most recruiters are very good at following up on these details, but these comparative advantages are obscured by the malpractices in the industry, often at the cost of the most vulnerable workers.
To be fair, the overall SSW program itself has had a rough start. The number of countries that Japan has signed agreements with has increased over the last two years with the addition of Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and most recently, India. But deployment has been poor across the board.
Started in April 2019, SSW1 visas have only been issued to 8,769 workers (see figure) as of September 2020, which is less than a tenth of the target. Over 60% are from Vietnam, followed by Indonesia and the Philippines. Many of them were already based in Japan under other statuses, who simply changed their residence status to SSW1. For a program that has had a bumpy start, the onset of Covid-19 further derailed progress.
Tests have been ongoing for a while now, in various countries including Nepal. While the SSW program covers 14 sectors facing worker shortages, so far, tests have been arranged only for the caregiving sector in Nepal. Tests in other sectors like the food industry and agriculture are scheduled for February and March. Japan-based Nepalis have also been taking advantage of the tests administered in Japan to enable them to switch to SSW1status.
Hari Sangroula from Universal Training Center shares, “The performance of Nepali students in the exams has improved over time. Initially, there was confusion about the content and exam modality so the learning curve was steep. Performance in care worker skills exams has significantly increased, but students are still struggling with the language exams in which pass rates are relatively lower.”
Unlike in the language exam for South Korea's Employment Permit Scheme program where all eligible candidates are allowed to appear for the language exams, the number of test-takers in Japan is limited and conducted multiple times a year. “Earlier, the selection of test-takers was based on a lottery system. Now students are selected on a first-come-first-serve basis online, and it takes just a minute or two for all the available seats to fill-up which can be stressful for aspiring test-takers,” says Sangroula.
According to Yoshioka from the Japan Embassy, in the last two fiscal years, 234 Nepalis have passed the technical examination for care workers whereas 207 have passed the language exam. “So, over 200 aspirants are eligible to work as caregivers in Japan and they will have to make the effort to find suitable employment opportunities,” he says.
And therein lies the confusion, as the Japan Unit at Department of Foreign Employment (DOFE) is still not functional, whereas private sector intermediaries are barred from participating. Both employers and migrants are unfamiliar with the recruitment and employment system in the other country.
“There is a Japan Unit at DOFE, but it is not fully functional yet. The directive that will detail the mandate of the Japan Unit, including information dissemination to aspirants, coordination with employers, selection and visa processing support is being finalised at the Labor Ministry,” explains Tika Neupane, Spokesperson at DOFE.
There are students who have reached out to DOFE after completing the exams successfully, questioning what to do next and DOFE allowed them to take individual labour approvals. “However, the full implementation of the SSW as per the agreement with Japan Unit taking on a large, more hands-on role has yet to begin. The directive that is being finalised will clarify the implementation details,” Neupane adds.
“Only 69 Nepalis are currently under the SSW residential status so far in Japan. But a good majority of Nepalis who were already in Japan, simply switched to the SSW1 residence status from other statuses like technical intern. They are mostly involved in the food industry,” Yoshioko says.
In 2019, the Nepal Embassy issued 7 visas for SSW although it is not clear how many among them passed the exams in Nepal versus Japan. More visas have been issued in 2020, but the data has not been made public yet.
While individual labour approvals are being issued by DOFE, which means a migrant can independently arrange his contract with the employer and would be provided the labor approval by DOFE, it is easier said than done. The employment system is complex to navigate: from job search to obtaining the visa related paperwork, confusion related to language differences, distance and unfamiliarity of contexts and practices prevail.
Sujit Shrestha, General Secretary of the Nepal Association of Foreign Employment Agencies (NAFEA), attributes the ongoing delay to finalise the directive to heavy political interference and vested interests. A leaked version of the Directive includes a provision of a ‘third party’ that is registered in Japan and recommended by the Nepal Embassy to facilitate the recruitment of SSW workers, including the evaluation of employers in Japan and demand collection from employers. This has been heavily contested by recruiters in Nepal who are excluded from the agreement and want part of this lucrative corridor.
“The leaked directive contradicts the original spirit of the agreement that barred the private sector from participating in the implementation of the SSW program. The Government barred the involvement of recruiters while the Japan Unit hasn’t been able to deliver and even if it is functional, it won’t be able to mobilise at scale. They should have let us do it under defined criteria and monitor our activities closely like other countries. The government should be dealing with the government counterparts of destination countries, and not the private sector,” he says.
However, Neupane from DOFE insists that the SSW directive will be as envisaged in the original agreement with a fully functional Japan unit.
Pre-pandemic, a survey in 2019 showed that over 61 percent Japanese companies reported not receiving applications to jobs offered (see figure). The Nepal Government dragged its feet in the initial two years after the signing of the agreement. As employers in Japan figure out the nuts and bolts of recruiting under the SSW status and further intensify their cross-border efforts to address their human resource challenges, making the process unnecessarily confusing will work against Nepali aspirants, especially as there are other 12 countries to choose from.
Nepalis are already investing time, effort and money to prepare for the exams, with many, as seen in the case of over 200 successful test-takers, who are looking for guidance on being matched with employers in the caregiving sector.
Amid the confusions and delays, a few language institutes like Universal and Reiwa have stepped in to intermediate and garnered recognition among aspirants for helping them connect to employers. They explain that they have facilitated the interviews with care centers in Japan free of cost to the migrants because but are being compensated by their Japan-based partners. Four SSW workers at various stages of the recruitment and deployment process have confirmed this to Nepali Times. This is encouraging, with the caveat that workers seldom reveal details of service fees paid, in fear of retribution.
Data obtained by Universal Training Center from the Japan Foundation shows that, of the couple hundred that have passed both exams, around 96 have gone further with the process and passed interviews, completed paperwork, and received their Certificate of Eligibility (COE), the last step required before they can apply for visas. But there are delays and uncertainty in obtaining visas due to the pandemic.
Santosh Neupane who is part of the management of Reiwa Nepal, a language institute that cooperates with Japan based recruiter Dogwood Group, emphasises on a strong partnership between the private sector and the Nepal Government to ensure the SSW implementation.
“It is far-fetched to expect employers to carry out all recruitment activities on their own by coordinating with Japan Unit that will not be as involved as the private intermediaries are for nitty-gritty details even if it were to be functional. The added burden may dissuade employers, who will source workers from Philippines or Vietnam, instead,” says Neupane.
While confusion abounds and there is a pressing need for a functional Japan Unit or another alternate to the woeful inaction, the lucky few Nepalis who manage to overcome the odds are thankful for the opportunity.
Binu Gurung, was one of the first and few SSW workers from Nepal who arrived in Japan in November 2020. “I am now in my training period but am getting paid my regular wages. Most of the Japanese I take care of are in their 80s and 90s,” she said over the phone.
A pioneer SSW Nepali, she has become a mentor for other Nepalis who want to work in Japan. She is pleased with the support she has been receiving as a financially secure future looms in the horizon. Her husband, too, has taken Japanese language classes and is waiting for his opportunity to take the exam so he can join her.
Binu Gurung working in Japan as a caregiver. PHOTO: BINU GURUNG
Things do not always fall into place for everyone, like it did for Binu. Despite successfully completing his language and skills exams, Phanindra Sedai, has failed the interviews with prospective employers. “I have taken the interview three times already. I won’t stop reapplying because I have already invested an enormous amount of time and effort and passed the tests,” says Sedai, who worked in Malaysia for eight years as a security guard now runs a small shop in Nepal, brushing up on Japanese vocabulary when he has time.
Sangroula from Universal says employers are looking for more than communication skills. “The way they conduct themselves, their demeanor—all matter during online video interviews. To help frail, aging patients with everyday tasks and be their sole companion in their twilight years is a demanding job requiring an enormous amount of compassion and patience.”