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Dying to work: Japan Inc.’s foreign trainees

by Simon Scott

“The Industrial Trainees and Technical Interns program often fuels demand for exploitative cheap labor under conditions that constitute violations of the right to physical and mental health, physical integrity, freedom of expression and movement of foreign trainees and interns, and that in some cases may well amount to slavery. This program should be discontinued and replaced by an employment program.”

JORGE BUSTAMANTE, U.N. SPECIAL RAPPORTEUR ON THE HUMAN RIGHTS OF MIGRANTS, APRIL 2010

Thirty-one-year-old Jiang Xiaodong died screaming in the night a long way from home.

His two roommates, also young Chinese men who left their homeland for the dream of a better future in wealthy Japan, woke in the early hours of June 6, 2008, to see their coworker and friend dying in his bed. When an ambulance arrived 15 minutes later at the small dorm in Itako City, Ibaraki Prefecture, where the men lived, Jiang was already dead.

The autopsy that followed concluded Jiang had died of sudden heart failure, yet there was no apparent cause. There was no internal or external evidence of injury or disease, and no drugs were found in his system.

Further investigation into Jiang’s lifestyle and background revealed nothing suspect. His diet was better than average, he didn’t drink alcohol, and his medical records showed no history of illness.

Everything about Jiang’s life suggested he was a normal, healthy young man who should have had a long life ahead of him.

But a number of details about his job at Fuji Denka Kogyo, where he worked on the metal-plating production line, didn’t add up. Jiang’s colleagues told investigators that he did a massive amount of overtime in his job, yet company records showed no such thing. Strangely, the time card the company submitted to authorities showed he did only a relatively small number of extra work hours in the period leading up to his death.

Under pressure from the Lawyers’ Network for Trainees, a human rights-focused collective of Japanese attorneys who represent foreign migrant workers and their families, the local labor standards office started an official investigation into Jiang’s death.

Last month, two years after his death, the Kashima Labor Standards Inspection Office finally released a ruling: Jiang had died of karoshi — death from overwork.

It is the first time Japanese authorities have ever recognized that a foreign intern effectively worked himself to death.

The labor office ruling has been passed to the public prosecutor, but it is unknown at this stage whether criminal charges will be laid against Fuji Denka Kogyo or the company’s president, Takehiko Fujioka.

Furthermore, lawyers representing Jiang’s wife and family, who are suing for compensation, are claiming the company falsified work records by creating a new time card that showed Jiang worked considerably less overtime than he actually did. Their investigators were able to determine that in the year up to his death, Jiang did an average of more than 150 hours overtime per month — meaning he spent a combined monthly total of 310 or more hours on the factory floor.

It was also found that in the same year, Jiang took more than two days off in a row on only two occasions — for Obon in summer and New Year.

Although now widely acknowledged as a major problem in Japan, the government was initially reluctant to officially recognize karoshi as a cause of death.

Labor lawyer Hiroshi Kawahito helped establish Japan’s first “karoshi hotline” 20 years ago to assist workers at risk. He says public awareness of the problem has increased since then, and in recent years the attitude of the Labor Ministry has begun to change, particularly since the formal establishment of criteria to define karoshi in 1989.

Under Japanese law, when a worker dies from brain or heart disease and their overtime hours were in excess of 100 in the month before their death, or the average monthly overtime was more than 80 hours for a period of at least two months before death, overwork is recognized as the cause.

Kawahito acknowledges it is impossible to “perfectly prove” an instance of death from overwork, but says that if one looks at the overall pattern of a person’s life, it is clear in many cases that the stress, both physical and mental, of long working hours negatively influences the health of workers.

“Two-hundred-thousand people die in Japan every year from stroke and heart attack. We believe about 10 percent of these cases are due to overwork,” he said. He added that asthma, suicide and a whole raft of mental illnesses were also often the result of extreme overwork.

Westerners tend to link Japan’s workaholic society today to “typically Japanese” traits such as deference to authority and respect for hierarchy, but Kawahito believes this is not the root cause of the problem.

“Japan’s current work system is not part of traditional Japanese culture, but a modern phenomenon which developed in order to catch up with Europe and the U.S.,” he said.

The postwar mentality of the Japanese people was that they had to work harder than everyone else, he explained. “Japan was completely defeated in World War II by the United States, so maybe Japanese people are afraid Japan will be defeated again, not militarily but economically.”

It was this uncompromising work culture that Jiang Xiaodong stepped into in the winter of 2006.

Originating from a farming family in rural Jiangsu Province in eastern China, Jiang traveled to Japan to earn money to build a better life for his family back home. According to his younger sister, who requested her name not be published, Jiang felt a strong obligation to support his family in China. As their father was unable to perform farm work due to health problems, Jiang was the family’s “greatest hope of a livelihood.”

“The reason my brother went to Japan at all was for his own future, but more than this, as the eldest son it was also for the happiness of his parents in their old age,” she said.

Jiang’s death has exacted a huge emotional toll on his family. Jiang’s sister believes the trauma led directly to the premature death of their mother, who succumbed to brain cancer just three days before the Japanese authorities formally recognized that Jiang died from overwork.

Just prior to their mother’s death, Jiang’s sister wrote: “My mother, who was always lively, is now withdrawn and spends a lot of time just staring at my brother’s photograph. Every time I return to my parents’ home and see my parents’ grief it makes me sadder. What’s more, it pains me beyond words when I see my niece with an innocent expression ask my sister-in-law: ‘When is daddy coming home?’ “

Writing again, this time after the death of her mother: “I can’t help but think that my mother’s sudden death at such a young age is related to the shock of my brother’s death. My mother passed away on June 30. (We) found out my brother’s death had been recognized as work-related on July 2. I keep thinking things such as, ‘If this recognition had come but three days sooner, my mother could have passed on to the afterlife a little more at ease. She might have been able to meet my brother there; she might have been able to tell him the news too.’ “

The most frightening thing about the death of Jiang Xiaodong is that his case is not unique. In 2008 a total of 34 foreign workers who came into the country through the government-sponsored Industrial Training and Internship Program died in Japan. Of these, 16 died from heart and brain disease, and most were in their 20s and 30s. Five died from work-related accidents, one from suicide.

In the words of the Japan International Training Cooperation Organization (JITCO), which manages and oversees all foreign trainees and interns, “The rate of death of heart disease of trainees and technical interns was almost double the rate for Japanese of the same age.”

According to Lila Abiko of the Lawyers’ Network for Trainees, foreign “trainees” and “interns” are really just cheap migrant labor under another name.

Although the official purpose of the training and internship program is “international contribution and cooperation through human resource development of technology,” Abiko believes the reality is very different.

“There is a big gap between this system’s purpose and the reality. This is a fundamental problem,” she said.

Abiko argues that the trainee and intern system developed the way it did in Japan because of innate problems in the country’s immigration law.

In 1989, at the height of Japan’s bubble economy, an amendment was made to the Immigration and Control and Refugee Recognition Act that established the new “trainee” status-of-residence category.

At this time, a massive need for labor had developed as a result of Japan’s booming economy, but public opposition to the notion of accepting unskilled foreign labor en masse remained high.

Fearful of upsetting public opinion but under pressure from corporate Japan, the government decided to let in foreign migrant workers as “trainees.” At the same time it also granted Brazilians of Japanese descent long-term residency status.

Thus, Abiko claims, corporate Japan’s hunger for labor was largely sated, but a system had been formed whose true intentions were concealed behind a facade of altruistic intentions.

Originating mainly from China and Southeast Asia, trainees and interns are lured to Japan with the promise that they will acquire skills and knowledge they can later use in their own country. Instead, many of them get low-paid, unskilled jobs, minus the basic rights and safeguards any Japanese worker would enjoy.

Recent amendments to the Immigration Control Act, which also included changes to Japan’s alien registration card system, have improved the situation for participants of the internship program, although arguably it is a case of too little, too late.

Under the old system, those in the first year of the program were officially classed as “trainees,” not workers, meaning they were unable to claim the protections Japanese labor law affords regular employees.

For example, the minimum wage in Japan varies according to prefecture, and currently the national average is ¥713 per hour. But as foreign trainees are not technically “workers,” employers are not obliged to pay them even this. Instead, they receive a monthly “trainee allowance,” which for most first-year trainees falls between ¥60,000 and ¥80,000 — the equivalent to an hourly wage in the range of ¥375 to ¥500 for a full-time 40-hour week.

For first-year trainees, trying to survive on such a low income is a real struggle, so most have to do a great deal of overtime just to make ends meet.

Although the “trainee” residency status still exists for foreign workers who arrived before 2010, it is currently being phased out, and from 2011 all first-year participants in the program will be classed as technical interns. This a significant step forward, as the Labor Standards Law and the Minimum Wage Act apply to foreign migrant workers with technical-intern residency status. However, whether migrant workers are actually able to access the protections they are entitled to is another matter, and the issue of oversight — or the lack of it — is still a long way from being resolved.

Abiko believes this absence of proper oversight has grown out of the internship program’s weak regulatory structure and a general lack of government accountability. The government entrusts most of the operations of the internship program to JITCO, an authority that lacks the power to sanction participating organizations or companies, says Abiko.

“JITCO is just a charitable organization. It is very clear that JITCO is not appropriate to regulate and monitor this program.”

In addition, she argues, the financial relationship between JITCO and the collectives or companies under which trainees work makes JITCO’s role as a regulatory body even more untenable. JITCO’s total income for the 2008 financial year was ¥2.94 billion. More than half this amount, ¥1.66 billion, came from “support membership fees” paid by the companies themselves.

“How can JITCO appropriately regulate and monitor their support members when they are dependent on them for membership fees?” she said.

The Japan Times contacted JITCO requesting an interview and submitted written questions about the Industrial Training and Internship Program. JITCO said they were unable to reply in time for publication.

A number of phone calls were made to Fuji Denka Kogyo in relation to this story, but company president Fujioka could not be reached for comment.

Translation assistance provided by James Benson. Send comments on this issue and story ideas to community@japantimes.co.jp