The Philippines’ misguided policy hurts Filipino migrant workers in Japan

Ponder the case of Rochelle, a former technical intern trainee who is now working in Nagoya City in central Japan as a Specified Skilled Worker (SSW).

When her contract as a technical intern trainee was about to end just as the Covid pandemic was easing up, Rochelle had to make a choice: she would either return to the Philippines and face an uncertain job market, or she would find a company in Japan willing to hire her under the new SSW visa.

Rochelle is the sole breadwinner in her family in Quezon Province, supporting her elderly parents and a sister who goes to a local college. Her choice, therefore, was clear: find a company before her trainee visa expires and continue working in the Land of the Rising Sun.

Luckily, a friend she met while attending a Japanese language class offered to introduce her to his boss at his company in which many Filipino long-term and permanent residents work.

Rochelle’s job interview went well, in large part because she could converse in Japanese, having diligently studied the language and taken the N3-level Japanese Language Proficiency Test exactly for this purpose. Her new company submitted all the necessary papers to the Immigration Office in Nagoya and she received an SSW1 visa just before her trainee visa expired, granting her a maximum of five years–renewable every year–to live and work in Japan.

Rochelle was relieved that all went well–except for one small problem.

The Philippine government, through the Department of Migrant Workers (DMW) and the Migrant Workers Office (MWO) in Japan, deems this whole procedure “improper and illegal” according to its Advisory No. 2023-004.

‘Do not employ Filipino workers without a Philippine Recruitment Agency’

A Japanese company wishing to employ technical intern trainees or specified skilled workers from the Philippines is required to enter into contract with a Philippine Recruitment Agency (PRA). It has to: it is the PRA’s job to recruit suitable candidates in the Philippines, train them, process their papers and send them to the Japanese company in Japan.

However, Rochelle’s company in Japan, which hired her directly in Nagoya City, doesn’t see the need for a PRA. In fact, it probably doesn’t even know what a PRA is because it doesn’t hire employees from the Philippines. All its employees–including the Filipinos–are local hires, meaning they were recruited in Nagoya City in Japan. And even if it did know what a PRA is, Rochelle’s boss would have to rack his brain to find a reason to enter into contract with one.

In fact, if Rochelle had insisted that a contract with a PRA was necessary for the company to hire her, the company would in most likelihood not have even given her a chance for an interview. It would have hired someone else–a Vietnamese former trainee maybe, if one was available.

Under Japanese law, what the Japanese company and Rochelle did was perfectly legal.

The Philippine government insists, however, that it isn’t, and is keen on punishing both for this egregious skirting of Philippine authority.

Philippine policy punishes Japanese companies for hiring Filipino workers

The fact that Rochelle’s company did not know what a PRA is, and that hiring Filipino workers without a PRA is “illegal” according to Philippine authorities, probably saved her job. Otherwise, the company might have had second thoughts about hiring her in the first place.

On the other hand, a Japanese company that already hires Filipino technical intern trainees from the Philippines would not want to run afoul of Philippine rules by directly hiring Specified Skilled Workers in Japan without a contract with a PRA, lest its license to hire trainees get revoked by Philippine authorities.

It would therefore have serious trepidation in hiring a Filipino SSW, even if that person is perfectly qualified for the job.

In effect, instead of the Philippine authorities urging Japanese companies, “Please, hire more Filipinos!” they instead admonish potential employers to “Think very, very carefully before you hire our workers–or you might get penalized.”

It comes as no surprise, therefore, that Vietnamese workers in Japan, whose government does not have onerous requirements from Japanese companies, now outnumber Filipino workers 5 to 1, in spite of Filipino workers having decades of head start in the Japanese labor market.

By trying to punish Japanese companies that hire Filipino workers, the Philippine government hurts the employability of Filipino workers themselves.

Philippine policy directly hurts Filipino workers in Japan

The Filipino SSW working for a Japanese company that does not have a partner PRA is also directly impacted by Philippine labor rules.

Rochelle, despite securing a stable job at a Japanese company, constantly worries that one of her parents would get seriously ill, because she cannot go to the Philippines without losing her job–and not because of being fired from her company.

You see, she is free to go home to the Philippines, but she would not be able to return to her job in Japan because she would not be able to get an Overseas Employment Certificate (OEC) from the DMO, and she would not be able to fly out from a Philippine airport without one.

This is the plight of hundreds–if not thousands–of Filipino Specified Skilled Workers in Japan, people who work decent jobs and religiously remit money home which helps their families and the Philippine economy as a whole, because of the Philippine government’s short-sighted policies.

To illustrate this almost farcical situation, Jomer, another Specified Skilled Worker in Rochelle’s company, did not have a choice but to meet his wife and two kids in Hongkong last year–at great personal cost–because he could not visit them in the Philippines.

There must be something seriously wrong with a country’s policies if its citizens must go to another country to see their loved ones because they cannot visit them in their own country for fear of losing their jobs.

The Philippine government misses a golden opportunity

The Specified Skilled Worker program is Japan’s scheme to attract medium- and long-term foreign workers to alleviate its chronic shortage of manpower.

The SSW1 visa grants its holder the right to reside and work in Japan for a maximum of 5 years. After 5 years, the Specified Skilled Worker wishing to extend her employment may apply for the SSW2 visa, which is endlessly renewable and grants its holder the permission to live and work in Japan for as long as she is qualified.

Moreover, the SSW2 visa grants its holder the permission to apply for residence visa for her dependents (spouse and children) so they can live with her in Japan. After a combined 10 years of holding an SSW1 and SSW2 visa, the worker may then apply for a permanent residence visa.

Because in essence an SSW visa gives its holder the path to a permanent residence in Japan, many Japanese commentators have noted that it is an immigrant visa in all but name, just that the Japanese government is not calling it as such to avert possible backlash from the more conservative sections of its population.

Just like the first wave of Filipino workers that started arriving in Japan in the late 1970s–mostly women entertainers that have now acquired long-term and permanent residence in the country–the Philippine government should take this opportunity to facilitate immigration to Japan by eliminating employment barriers.

Instead, it continues to implement rules that lessen the Filipino workers’ desirability to Japanese companies and punishes those Filipino Specified Skilled Workers already employed.

Presently, not only do Vietnamese Specified Skilled Workers now outnumber Filipinos 5 to 1, as mentioned earlier, the number of Indonesian Specified Skilled Workers has also surpassed the Filipinos and will continue to do so unless the Philippine government reverses its misguided policy.

What must be done?

There are a number of changes that the Philippine government should do to rectify its policy.

  1. The Department of Migrant Workers should stop requiring Japanese companies to partner with a Philippine Recruitment Agency before they can directly hire Filipino Specified Skilled Workers. It should be the Japanese employer’s prerogative to partner with a PRA as it deems necessary.

    The DMW already makes exceptions for some directly hired Filipinos in Japan. Why not scrap this unreasonable requirement altogether?

  2. The DMW should do away with the Overseas Employment Certificate (OEC) for Filipino workers in Japan. The process of acquiring OEC for not only Specified Skilled Workers but also other working Filipinos as well is so notoriously convoluted that there is a Facebook Group of Filipinos in Japan whose sole purpose is to discuss the ways and strategies of acquiring this antiquated paper.

    The Philippine government should not prevent Filipinos with valid working visa issued by the Japanese government from leaving the country.

  3. The Migrant Workers Offices in Japan should only require working Filipinos and their employers to submit the minimum number of necessary documents, such as: 1. Residence Card (issued by the Japanese government, it has all the necessary personal information of the holder, including visa status); 2. Employment Certificate (issued by the company); 3. Tax Certificate (issued by the city hall, this document (Kazei Shomeisho in Japanese) proves yearly income and may be used by the Philippine government for tax purposes).

    The documents above are the same documents required by the Immigration Office in Japan for visa renewal. Why does the MWO need more?

    Regarding the documents required by the MWO from Japanese companies, many are unacceptable, illegal o just plain silly. For instance:

    • Pledge to comply with Philippine labor laws (employers and workers (Japanese and foreigners alike) in Japan should comply with Japanese labor laws, not some other country’s labor laws)
    • List of all of company’s Filipino employees regardless of residence status (this violates Japan’s privacy laws)
    • Copy of CEO’s passport (unnecessary and arbitrary)

    Needless to say, many Japanese companies reject these requirements outright, and they either pass on Filipino workers in favor of other nationalities, or leave their Filipino employees to explain to the MWO why the documents cannot be obtained.

Filipino workers should be able to live and work in Japan without interference

If all of the above seem unreasonable, bear in mind that there is already a group of Filipinos who enjoy the benefits of working in Japan without unnecessary interference from the Philippine government: the Nikkeijin.

The Nikkeijin are Filipinos who have Japanese ancestors. Starting from the 1980s, they were permitted to live and work in Japan for the same reason the Japanese government is now promoting its Specified Skilled Worker program: Japan needed foreign workers.

The Nikkeijin live and work in Japan without interference from the Philippine government. Nobody checks the employment contracts they freely sign with Japanese companies. They go and visit their relatives in the Philippines as they please. They do not need to report to the Migrant Workers Office. They do not need the OEC. Nobody but the Immigration Office in Japan checks their employment status.

The Nikkeijin and Specified Skilled Workers and other working Filipinos in Japan who are not permanent residents have similar requirements for their visa; their residence status in Japan depends on their employment and payment of taxes.

If the Nikkeijin enjoy these non-interference from the Philippine goverment, why not the Specified Skilled Workers, or any other working Filipinos in Japan for that matter?

Eliminating employment barriers for Filipinos in Japan and facilitating their unrestricted travel between the two countries could only be beneficial for all concerned–except perhaps the recruitment agencies–and would ensure the deployment of more and more Filipinos to Japanese companies which highly rate their work ethics.

Filipino workers in Japan deserve better

Rochelle says that she thinks herself lucky to be able to continue to work in Japan, but not being able to visit her family for so many years continues to stress her out. But more than that, she dreads the day when she has to go back in case of an emergency; in all likelihood she will not be able to return to Japan and she will lose her job.

She had tried to reason with the Migrant Workers Office in Japan to no avail. The answer was always “Your company should partner with a PRA for you to be able to get an OEC.” Her company, in turn, sees no need for a PRA, and while she has tried looking for a different company that is contracted with a PRA, virtually all SSW she knows work at companies without them.

Rochelle’s situation is sadly not uncommon.

There are countless others like her, Specified Skilled Workers who work in Japanese companies without contracting with a PRA. They need their jobs in Japan, and they cannot visit the Philippines without losing their jobs. They are stuck in a virtual limbo, and the Philippine government continues to turn a blind eye to their plight.

And as more and more technical intern trainees finish their contracts and choose to continue working as Specified Skilled Workers, the situation is going to get worse.

By working in foreign lands away from family, Filipino migrant workers continue to do their share in helping the Philippine economy. According to figures from the Philippine Central Bank, Filipinos in Japan remitted $1.6 billion to the Philippines in 2022, third behind only the US and Saudi Arabia. Their contribution should be rewarded, not penalized.

Rochelle and many other hardworking Filipinos like her deserve to be able to visit their home in the Philippines without fear of losing their jobs. It is time the Philippine government stop ignoring their plight and make a genuine effort to revise its harmful policies that continue to hurt its “Modern-day Heroes.”

Read in Filipino.