The Japanese government on Friday approved a policy to replace its controversial trainee program for foreigners, featuring improved rights protection with increased flexibility for changing jobs and tougher oversight.

The approval at a ministerial meeting followed proposals by a government panel last year but also takes into account discussions in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party to restrict trainees from transferring jobs for a maximum of two years.

The approval paves the way for the government to submit bills to parliament as early as March to introduce the new system.

Photo taken on Feb. 9, 2024, shows Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida (2nd from R) greeting a ministerial meeting at the premier's office in Tokyo on the employment of foreign workers. (Kyodo)

The current Technical Intern Training Program in place since 1993 was designed to transfer skills to developing countries, but it has been criticized as a cover for importing low-cost labor as Japan's working-age population shrinks.

It has stringent rules that have largely prohibited trainees from changing workplaces unless there are compelling reasons, and many have run away due to abuses such as unpaid wages and harassment.

"We want to make Japan into a country that foreign talent will choose (to work in,)" Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said of the decision.

"We will proceed with work based on this policy," he added, instructing ministers to improve conditions for the acceptance of foreign workers.

File photo taken in December 2018 shows foreign technical trainees harvesting lotus roots in Kasumigaura, Ibaraki Prefecture. (Kyodo)

But while the final report by the panel stated that trainees should be allowed to transfer jobs after working one year in principle, lawmakers expressed concern about potential trainee outflows from rural to urban areas, where conditions are better.

The government ultimately decided to set a maximum limit on job transfers of two years, depending on the field.

Another requirement will be for trainees to have passed the easiest "N5" level of the Japanese-Language Proficiency Test or the "N4" level demonstrating an understanding of basic Japanese.

Supervising organizations, which act as brokers and monitor companies that accept foreign trainees, will be renamed "supervisory support organizations" and required to appoint external auditors under the new system.

Meanwhile, the government is also considering requirements for revoking permanent residency status from foreigners -- whose numbers are expected to increase -- if they do not pay taxes or social insurance premiums.

Under the new system, trainees will be able to shift to a specified skilled worker system, introduced in 2019, that allows for stays of up to 5 years with the potential for obtaining permanent residency.

There were around 358,000 foreign technical interns as of the end of June.

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