A costly waiting game for inbound foreign workers


Canadian Ken Boisjoly-Moreau and his girlfriend traveled to Japan four times over the course of two years, “fell in love” with the country and started studying Japanese. The pieces were falling into place to fulfill their goal of living in Japan when Boisjoly-Moreau was offered a job at a multinational company’s Japanese subsidiary. It was a win for his employer as well, as people with his specialty in cybersecurity are hard to find in Japan, and the company had been looking for someone to fill the position for over a year and a half.

Boisjoly-Moreau was awarded a certificate of entry (COE) and an engineering visa in March, sold his belongings and prepared to depart for Japan on April 13. However, coronavirus-related travel restrictions made his trip impossible, and in May he started doing his job remotely from Canada.

“Having to work overseas, with a 13-hour time difference, in a language different than mine certainly has been a challenge,” he says. Being in a different time zone from the rest of his team causes delays in work and some friction with team members.

Since he gave up his housing in preparation for his move he has been camping out at his girlfriend’s parents’ house after having spent some time at an Airbnb. It’s not a situation that feels sustainable, and despite news on Friday that current non-Japanese residents will be allowed back into Japan from September when the government relaxes tight border controls put in place to curb the spread of COVID-19, Boisjoly-Moreau has no idea when he will be able to come to Japan to start his new life and job. Both he and his employer have repeatedly contacted immigration services and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, but have received contradictory information. In the meantime, Boisjoly-Moreau’s visa has expired, and he feels like he is being treated as if he never obtained one in the first place, causing him to go back to square one of the process.

“Every day, for the past five months, I have had to spend time looking at new updates from various sources, only to be disappointed every time seeing that new visa/COE holders are completely ignored by the government,” he says, adding that the situation has caused him to lose sleep due to the stress of it all. “My life is being consumed entirely by this.”

“My employer has been supportive, however their hands are tied as much as mine are,” he says. “Every time they call immigration services, they get contradictory information. So they’ve given up until they can hear something official.”

Boisjoly-Moreau is one of many people who are now stuck in limbo, unable to come to Japan to begin new positions they had been offered at jobs in this country due to a moratorium on new entries imposed by the government. This freeze in the flow of human resources across borders is wreaking havoc with individual lives, as well as negatively impacting employers who have not been able to bring in people to work in key positions in their Japanese operations.

Multinationals, interrupted

According to Klaus Meder, president of Bosch Japan, the German technology firm currently has 13 international associates who are waiting outside the country to be cleared to come to Japan to work.

One individual is the project manager for Bosch’s new technical center being built in Yokohama, a major investment that the company is making in Japan. Although the employee is doing what he can from afar via the internet, his work largely needs to be done onsite, so he is not able to perform his position fully. Meder says the situation is creating “additional stress, and organizational waste of time, energy and money.”

Ikea, which is expanding its operations in Japan by way of “city center shops,” like the one recently opened in Tokyo’s Harajuku area, has several new team members waiting to complete their transfer to Japan, with some of them in leadership positions and others who are specialists in areas such as home design and digital sales. IKEA Japan President CEO & CSO (Chief Sustainability Officer) Helene von Reis tells The Japan Times that not being able to bring these key team members to Japan “slows down the expansion” and is making it “really tough” to meet deadlines for planned store openings.

The company is covering the vacancies with the human resources it already has in Japan, but this is putting a strain on other parts of the business.

Meanwhile, Amway Japan has a key executive who has since March been unable to travel here from the United States to start his assignment as a vice president. According to Mark Davidson, the firm’s government and external affairs director, this situation has “directly and adversely impacted” Amway’s nearly $1 billion business in Japan. Due to this executive’s absence, the company has had to delay the launch of several new business initiatives, which has hurt the income-earning potential of the more than 600,000 Amway product distributors in Japan.

BMW Japan has seven people that it is waiting to bring over from Europe to take up leadership positions at the company. In describing the negative impact of the delay, a spokesman mentions the importance of face-to-face communication in Japan, “especially for new faces.” Because they are stuck outside of Japan, these leaders “are not able to visit actual business places like dealers, our vehicle delivery center and our parts center to grasp what is really going on.”

These situations are not uncommon among overseas multinationals operating in Japan. In a survey of its members released by the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan, 21 percent responded that “Important/essential leadership or expert positions in the company cannot be filled,” and the same question when asked by the German Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Japan in a survey of its members got the same result of 21 percent.

Japanese firms also feel the effect

The inability to bring in new employees from overseas is also impacting Japanese firms that hire many non-Japanese employees. Melissa Kuwahara, senior manager of global talent acquisition at Rakuten, reports that the firm currently has approximately 100 international candidates from more than 25 countries who have accepted an offer to work at Rakuten in Japan, but cannot join the company because they are unable to enter the country. After the government’s revised entry restrictions were put in place in early April, the company had to make the difficult decision to temporarily slow down its overseas recruiting efforts.

“The domestic pool of engineering candidates available in Japan is a very competitive one, and it is not growing year-on-year,” says Kuwahara. “International talent not only bring in a variety of important skills and expertise, they also contribute to the diversity and growth of the Rakuten Group. We’re potentially losing valuable opportunities to grow and contribute more to Japan’s economic growth without access to international engineering candidates and global talent.”

In need of a new plan

Both employers and individual employees emphasize the stress and inconvenience of not knowing when new entrants will be able to come to Japan. The uncertainty makes it difficult to plan, and the more time that passes without concrete information from the government makes it more difficult.

American Deanna Thomas, who graduated this spring with a degree in computer science and was supposed to start work on Sept. 1 as an engineer at an IT company in Tokyo, says the situation has taken a toll on her mentally.

“I have no idea if I can come to Japan next month or next year, so I can’t look for work, move out or really do anything other than sit here and wait,” she says.

Sudeepta Dey, a network engineer from India who has been waiting since April to come to Japan to begin his job at an IT services company, feels that all his plans are on hold, and rues the “gap for almost a year in my life.” He says that he is “waiting patiently for when Japan’s government will listen to our voice.”

For Haley Scott, the delay has already cost her a job opportunity. She was offered a position at a daycare and kindergarten in Osaka in March, and gave the required several months’ notice at her job in the U.K. After a back-and-forth about her visa for several months punctuated by long silences, she was finally told that her place had been filled with a domestic applicant. She’s still hoping to come to Japan and is applying for other positions, but whether that will work or not depends on how long the entry ban persists.

Similarly, Frankie Wu, a Chinese data scientist who was scouted by a global consulting firm’s Japan office and supposed to start a position there in April, says the biggest problem for him is the ambiguity. Because the entry ban extends month by month, he says “basically we can’t plan anything, and are just waiting anxiously.”

The government’s lack of action is puzzling to many.

“We think it’s completely irrational what we experience in Japan,” says Bosch’s Meder. “We can understand that international travel is limited, but can’t understand why these very important people for the Japanese economy are not allowed to enter. The virus doesn’t differentiate based on the passport.”

Boisjoly-Moreau echoes a sentiment that has been heard from other groups of non-Japanese people prevented from entering and re-entering the country since COVID-19 measures were put in place from April 3.

“Since the beginning of this crisis, we have been put in the same bucket as tourists,” he says. “In our case, we decided to take a leap of faith and dedicate future years of our lives to a new Japan and want to contribute to this country’s economy. What I would like to see from the government is a plan for us.”

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