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Second-class citizens

Companies use trainee system to exploit unskilled labor from overseas

by Laura Fitch

Rogelio Buscio’s shoes were missing. It was the evening of July 27, 2005, and 30-year old Filipino Bucio was getting ready to leave the dormitory he shared with other Sanjo Metal Company Ltd. trainees to start his evening shift. He looked everywhere, asked everyone. Nobody was giving up the shoes.

“I knew then that someone was playing jokes on me,” Bucio says. “So I pleaded and told everyone to please give me back my shoes, because I didn’t want to be late for work. Nobody budged. I became desperate. I lost my cool.”

What happened next set in motion a chain of events that would take over Bucio’s life for the following year.

“I took a garden hoe,” he says, “and using it, I smashed at the improvised wooden shoe rack that I and my other co-workers made from scrap wood.”

The next day, Bucio met with the manager in charge of trainees at Sanjo Metal Company Ltd., and was informed he was being dismissed. He was also told that he would have to return to the Philippines immediately, a move that would dash his hopes of saving money to start a family of his own, the reason he came to Japan.

“I told the company I wouldn’t accept the dismissal,” Bucio says. “I apologized to the company for what I did. I told them I did that because I didn’t want to be late for work.”

Although he had been with the company for over a year with no prior infractions and had just signed another contract to work until July 2006, Bucio’s pleas fell on deaf ears.

“The company violated my right to be heard when it failed to give me at least 30 days notice of termination. They wanted to force me to return to the Philippines and demanded I pay penalties for not being able to finish my contract,” he says.

He sought help from the Catholic Diocese of Niigata and other nonprofit organizations, as well as the Labor Standards Bureau of Niigata, to no avail.

The company then threatened to report him to the immigration bureau and seek his immediate deportation.

But before that could happen, Bucio went to the bureau himself and reported his illegal dismissal. He then took the highly unusual step of taking the company to court.

“I’ve heard of similar cases in the past,” says Bucio.

“The victims easily succumb to what the company wants. This is the reason I fought hard for my case. I don’t want others to experience the same.

“I also want fellow trainees to value courage and determination-to fight for what they think is right and never allow others to violate their rights.”

Although Bucio was not allowed to return to work, he sued for compensation for the remainder of the contract that he wasn’t allowed to finish, which was 12 months, from July 2005 to July 2006. In March, the court found in favor of Roger, and ordered the company to compensate his monthly salary for the remainder of the contract.

The company has appealed the ruling.

Bucio’s treatment by the company is not uncommon.

“The reality is that migrants in Japan are treated as second-class citizens,” says Butch M. Pongos, the Japan-Philippines Coordinator of the Asia-Pacific Mission for Migrants (APMM), which works to help migrant workers and their families in the Asia Pacific region. He is also vice chairperson of the Filipino Migrants Center (FMC) based in Nagoya.

“As Japan’s economy weakens, it is always the migrants who suffer first and get the hardest blow.

“Existing laws do not have enough teeth to target violators,” he says.

Japan technically does not allow unskilled workers into the country. But, according to Kyoto Sangyo University lecturer Julian Chapple, the Technical Intern Training Program introduced in 1993, “acts ostensibly as a front to allowing the importation of unskilled labor.”

The trainee program has provided a way for small companies to hire workers, mostly from Southeast Asian countries, notably the Philippines, to do “3 K” jobs (“kitanai” — dirty; “kitsui” — hard, “kiken” — dangerous) such as construction or factory work, that ordinary Japanese do not want to do. Pongos estimates there to be around 240,000 Filipinos in Japan, most of whom work.

Officially set up to help lessen the sting of Japan’s labor shortage the trainee system has turned into a flow of cheap labor for unscrupulous companies that dangle working visas and the threat of immediate deportation over the heads of workers.

Companies often pay what works out to be less than minimum wage, skim money off paychecks for real or imagined “charges” and use the slightest infraction to dismiss workers before they have to consider taking them on as full-time employees with benefits.

“Some trainees get only a measly 50,000 yen a month and they have to pay for their food, electricity, gas and water. The trainee system is just another euphemism for cheap labor,” says Pongos.

Pongos believes many foreign workers on the trainee program are being exploited mercilessly by the companies that hire them.

Most foreign workers do not have sufficient knowledge of the language, the legal system or access to support networks to defend themselves against labor violations.

In many cases, they are deported to their home countries before they even know what is happening.

“Their passports are kept by the employer to prevent them from running away to find better-paying jobs, they are assigned to dormitories and asked to pay rent (including utilities), their movements are controlled by the company and they are often forced to do overtime work for practically the same pay,” says Pongos.

“For any minor infraction, trainees are immediately sent back to the Philippines even though they signed a contract specifying the length of their stay in Japan. Companies can do this because they can easily find new ones who are willing to accept less pay.

“Trainees are virtually at the mercy of the receiving company and the company that hires them,” he continues.

“They may sign a contract in Manila, but these contracts are hardly followed once they are in Japan.”

‘It’s worth fighting for what’s right’

In July of last year, the Community Page reported on a group of seven Filipino mothers who were fighting for citizenship for their children born of Japanese fathers.

In March of this year, the Tokyo District Court sided with the women and granted nationality to their children.

Rosanna Tapiru, one of the seven mothers, and pictured left with her children, Masami and Naomi, now admits she was somewhat surprised at the decision.

“With my knowledge of how Japan thinks and responds to this kind of issue, I didn’t quite expect it. But with the rest of the mothers, the children and I were all happy to have gotten to first base.”

She acknowledges her children are barely aware of the complexities surrounding their status at present, but she believes she made the right decision to fight.

“Naomi barely understands what is happening, but I know when they both grow up, they will appreciate what I am doing now. We can all look forward to something brighter. I think we can secure a better future and be equal to other Japanese kids, she says,

She hopes that her case will encourage others to fight for their children’s citizenship rights.

“I believe our victory, no matter how small, meant a lot in cementing people’s resolve to fight for the rights of their children. It definitely gave them hope and reassured them it is worth it to fight for what is right. Many single mothers like us have kept silent about many issues. Our initial victory will challenge others to do the same.”

Article 2 of the Japanese Nationality Law states that a child is entitled to automatic Japanese citizenship if, at the time of birth, it is certain that either the mother or the father is a Japanese national.

In order for the child to obtain Japanese citizenship if the couple is not married, the father must give “ninchi,” or recognition, that the child in the mother’s womb is his own. If ninchi is given after the birth, courts don’t recognize that the child had a Japanese father at the time of birth and reject claims for citizenship.

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