Foreign trainee program given OK for expansion

Extra labor urgently needed for 2020 Games, Tohoku rebuilding

by Tomohiro Osaki

Staff Writer

The government decided Friday to expand the controversial foreign trainee program to counter the nation’s rapidly thinning domestic labor force, which is hobbling the construction industry just when demand is skyrocketing for projects related to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

The latest step, however, came despite long-voiced concerns and criticisms over the program, in which the trainees’ rights have allegedly been violated.

Under the current framework of the internship program, foreigners are granted a three-year visa status as technical interns, supposedly so they can learn about basic industrial expertise and techniques.

After their initial three-year stay, the revision eyes allowing the trainees to extend their stay for up to another two years under the different visa status of “designated activities.”

Also, once they have completed their three years as technical interns, they can temporarily return to their home countries if they want. At a later date, they can return under a “designated activities” visa and work here for up to three years.

The moves comes at a time Japan continues to struggle with the graying demographic of construction workers, of whom less than 10 percent are under 30.

Japan is set to beef up its efforts to prepare for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games as well as rebound from the 2011 triple disasters — the Great East Japan Earthquake, the tsunami and the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant meltdowns — that seriously affected parts of the Tohoku region.

The government is also reportedly considering including nurseries and related occupations in the same program, as the industry is notoriously short-handed and plagued by chronically high turnover.

The latest government step, however, will inevitably add more concerns over violations of trainees’ human rights.

Experts and activists say trainees are underpaid, harassed and abused.

The U.S. State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons Report published last June blasted the program as fraught with allegations such as “extortionate contracts” and attempts to keep trainees on an extremely short leash, most notably by confiscating their passports.

Ostensibly an attempt to nurture basic industrial skills in developing countries, the Industrial Trainee and Technical Internship Program (TTIP) kicked off in 1993 is often considered by critics a subterfuge to lure unskilled foreign labor.

The Japan Federation of Bar Associations on Thursday vehemently objected to the planned move to scale up the contentious program, maintaining it should be discontinued as soon as possible. The lawyers’ group said the program has long denied trainees the freedom of choice in employment, in effect mandating their total subservience to employers.

“Attempts to maintain and expand the program, including extending the period of their stay and green-lighting a repeat of their internship, will only increase the risk of human rights violations,” the group said in a written statement Thursday, reiterating its belief that the state-run program needs to be “abolished swiftly.”

Ippei Torii, a secretary general of the Solidarity Network with Migrants Japan who has for years vociferously campaigned for fairer rights for foreign workers, likewise raised fierce objection to the plan.

Given the program’s original aim, which was to foster skilled talent overseas, “it shouldn’t be used as a way to cope with dwindling domestic labor force,” Torii said.

“The government has to accept foreign workers in a way the protection of their basic human rights is guaranteed,” he continued, adding the rising demand for foreign labor is a keen reminder that it’s time for Japan to begin to officially accept unskilled foreign workers.

Meanwhile, while emphasizing the acute need to accelerate efforts to recover from the 2011 disaster and prepare for the Olympics, Justice Minister Sadakazu Tanigaki told reporters Friday that he is keenly aware that the government needs to take a cautious approach.

Expanding the program “could risk heightening concerns over Japan’s security environment and human rights violations. We need to ensure that we are able to conduct proper immigration policies,” he said

  • Franz Pichler

    bad news…… there are more than enough Japanese in this country that could do the job, the employers just don’t want to pay! That’s why the prefer cheap import labour! Disgusting! I wonder how much they’ll pay them! No insurance, no social security and health contribution, it’s gonna be a win win for big business! Look at London where Romanians live in slums and have to work for 2 quid an hour! Disgusting! And I bet the liberals here will trumpet victory cause they think Japan opens up for immigration but all that is happening is importing cheap labour to turn an even greater profit!

    • daimos

      just what do you mean liberals, are you sure? those are mostly right-wingers who are banging the bells for this trainee program! I do agree with you though, this program is an act to lure cheap labors.

      I know a lot of trainees here in Gunma who had fallen victims to this so called trainee program. after enduring unfair treatment, they all want to get out of this country. the only thing holding them is their signed contract. it is such a pity that with this program, japan as a whole is painting a bad image in the minds of these many young maltreated human beings. japan is a wonderful country. it is just that there are greedy buissnessmen and politicians wherever you go, and they are painting a bad image of japan.

    • midnightbrewer

      I’m liberal, and I think this program is abhorrent.

    • http://getironic.blogspot.com/ getironic

      The bad news is that much of the construction work going on consists of make-work projects by the government that don’t lead to increased production, even with the money saved by offering no benefits. By comparison, whether jobs are filled by Japanese or non-Japanese is irrelevant.

      It’s the state’s strong grip over the construction industry that is the problem that should be addressed. Under non-interventionist conditions it will become more clear what the appropriate policy should be regarding “unskilled” foreign/immigrant workers. But it is impossible to see what is actually needed under the current government-manufactured working conditions.

  • Sasori

    What do you expect, it’s Japan

    • midnightbrewer

      You mean “just like everywhere else”? This isn’t a unique problem.

  • Siloo Kapadia

    Excellent news! However they need to have a program where talented workers such as nurses can also easily apply for permanent residency or citizenship. Japan needs these people long-term,and not just for short-term contracts.

  • Demosthenes

    This ia a glorified slave labor program.