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Interns abused as labor crisis grows

Foreign recruits discover dark side of Japan's 'training programs'

by Alexandra Harney and Antoni Slodkowski

Reuters

Wednesday, Oct. 31, 2012, was a regular work day at Kameda Co., a family-owned apparel factory housed in rusting corrugated metal buildings in Hakusan, Ishikawa Prefecture. For three Chinese women, it was a day of escape.

At about 6:30 a.m., Ichiro Takahara, a union organizer, rolled up outside the dormitory where the women lived. Lu Xindi, Qian Juan and Jiang Cheng were waiting — they had been secretly plotting this move for months. Takahara drove them to a convenience store and then to the local labor standards office.

The story behind their flight began three years earlier and more than 1,440 km away in eastern China’s Jiangsu province. There, they signed up with a labor export company to work in Japan’s “foreign technical intern” program, which the government insists is designed to help workers from developing countries learn advanced technical skills.

In a lawsuit filed in a Japanese court, Lu, Qian and Jiang claim that rather than training them, Kameda forced them to work excessive hours at below minimum wage. In 2011, their busiest year, the women were working 16 hours a day, six days a week, with 15 minutes for lunch, according to the lawsuit and work records. For that, they were paid around ¥400 per hour, according to records reviewed by Reuters.

Other former interns have made similar allegations in dozens of lawsuits. Their case stands out because during the time that Lu, Qian and Jiang were working there, Kameda was putting pleats in Burberry clothes.

Japan is a key market for the British luxury brand, and most of what Burberry produces in Japan is sold here. Kameda was putting pleats in shirts and skirts that would later be sold under the Burberry Black line.

Burberry declined to allow Reuters to speak to any executives directly about the Kameda case. Through a public relations agency, it issued a statement saying Burberry had asked its Japanese licensing partner, Sanyo Shokai, to terminate its relationship with Kameda in late 2012 because Kameda was not complying with Burberry’s ethical standards.

The most recent government data show there are about 155,000 technical interns in Japan. Nearly 70 percent are from China, where some labor recruiters require payment of bonds worth thousands of dollars to work in Japan.

Interns toil in apparel and food factories, on farms and in metal-working shops.

In these workplaces, labor abuse is endemic: A 2012 investigation by labor inspectors found that 79 percent of the companies that employed interns were breaking labor laws.

Critics say foreign interns have become an exploited source of cheap labor in a country where, despite having the world’s most rapidly aging population, discussion of increased immigration is taboo.

Japan faces a worsening labor shortage, and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration is planning a further expansion of the trainee program.

Lu, Qian and Jiang arrived in Osaka by boat on Nov. 19, 2009. The women had signed with a labor export company in Haimen, not far from Shanghai, called Haimen Corporation for Foreign Economic & Technical Cooperation.

The Haimen firm then signed an agreement with Shanghai SFECO International Business Service, a subsidiary of state-owned company China SFECO Group, according to Guan Xiaojun, head of the Japan trainee department. Shanghai SFECO signed a contract with the Ishikawa Apparel Association and sent Lu, Qian and Jiang to Japan.

Guan said Lu, Qian and Jiang probably paid more than $4,800 in “service fees.” Asked about the accusations in the lawsuit, Guan said her company had only dispatched the workers. “Labor disputes have nothing to do with us,” she said.

Japanese law bars the act of employing foreigners as unskilled laborers. But quietly, Japan has been bringing in foreigners since at least the 1980s, originally to train staff of companies with operations overseas. The practice became the technical intern program in 1993.

The women received 18 days of Japanese-language training in Osaka. Then, the Ishikawa Apparel Association put them on a bus for the drive to Kameda, said their lawyer, Shingo Moro.

Kameda specializes in making pleats. It had relied on foreign interns for about a decade because it couldn’t find enough workers in Japan, said Yoshihiko Kameda, its president.

The conditions the lawsuit describes are a world apart from the clean, efficient image Japan projects to the world, and a far cry from the quintessentially British reputation on which Burberry trades.

Not long after their arrival, the apparel association took the women’s passports and passed them to Kameda in violation of Japanese law protecting interns’ freedom of movement, according to the lawsuit. An Ishikawa Apparel Association spokeswoman said the group does not conduct inappropriate supervision and training.

At the factory, Lu, Qian and Jiang’s overtime stretched to more than 100 hours a month, the lawsuit says. A time sheet prepared with data supplied by Kameda to the Labor Standards Bureau shows that Lu logged an average of 208 hours a month doing overtime and “homework” during her second year in Japan. Japanese labor policy considers 80 hours of overtime a month the “karoshi” (death by overwork) threshold.

For this, Lu earned about ¥400 an hour at Kameda, the time sheet shows. The local minimum wage at the time was ¥691 an hour, and the law requires a premium of as much as 50 percent of the base wage for overtime.

During lunch breaks and after work, the women were asked to do “homework.” For this, they were paid by the piece, rather than by the hour.

At night, Lu, Qian and Jiang slept in an old factory building, their lawyer says. To catch rats, Kameda brought in a cat, which brought fleas. Lu and Qian suffered so many flea bites they developed skin conditions, the lawsuit says. Evidence compiled for the lawsuit shows the women’s legs covered in bites.

Most interns come through a program supported by the Japan International Training Cooperation Organization, a foundation funded by the government and member groups. JITCO is also tasked with ensuring its members’ internship programs are properly run.

Kameda’s factory is in Hakusan, an industrial town of about 100,000 people, a center for Japan’s once booming apparel industry. That industry has largely been reduced to family-run factories, such as Kameda’s, which mostly do small orders with quick turnarounds at low margins.

In November 2011, Kameda told the interns the plant was going to be inspected by JITCO, according to testimony the women gave Takahara’s activist group. The inspection came after four Chinese interns at a nearby apparel factory — also a member of the Ishikawa Apparel Association — fled to Takahara’s shelter and filed a complaint about labor issues.

Kameda, who lives in a large house with a manicured Japanese garden opposite the factory where he used to house the women, tried to hide their working conditions from JITCO inspectors. Kameda threatened to send them back to China if they didn’t do as they were told, according to their testimony.

The day before the inspector arrived, Kameda gave Lu, Qian and Jiang fake pay slips, according to their testimony. Together with an interpreter and a representative from the apparel association, Kameda told them how to respond to questions from the inspector. They rehearsed their answers twice. The next day, when the inspector asked them if they still had their passports, the women knew to say that they did.

JITCO declined to comment on the Kameda case.

Asked about alleged abuses in the program, JITCO said in a statement that it will continue to provide legal protection for interns.

In the interview with Reuters, Kameda said the interns approached him about how they should respond to the JITCO inspection several times. He denied coaching or threatening to send them home if they did not answer as instructed. But he acknowledged telling Lu, Qian and Jiang that they might be sent home.

He also recalled telling the workers their overtime — which he said exceeded 100 hours a month at that time — might be a problem for the JITCO inspector. Asked about this inspection, JITCO said it would not comment on individual cases.

Kameda acknowledged keeping some of his workers’ passports but said it was at their request. He said the women sometimes worked 100 hours of overtime a month and may have put in as many as 173 hours.

Kameda also said he initially paid them less than the legal wage. But he insisted the underpayment was the result of an administrative error. The additional hours and homework, he said, were provided at the women’s behest. Kameda warned the workers that the hours they were working were longer than labor laws allowed, but the workers expressed a “strong desire” to continue working long hours, he said.

No one from the Ishikawa Apparel Association visited Kameda prior to a JITCO inspection, the apparel group’s spokeswoman said. She said she was not aware of any use of falsified pay slips, or of any coaching of Kameda interns. She confirmed that the interns had complained to the association about their housing. The association, she said, asked Kameda to respond to the interns’ concerns.

Lu, Qian and Jiang, who have since returned to China, declined requests for an interview. Interns who have sued their former Japanese employers can face difficulties upon returning home, including intimidation, lawsuits and penalties from the Chinese companies who sent them to Japan — and also pressure from family members ashamed of their problems overseas.

The women complained several times to Kameda about their living conditions, labor organizer Takahara says, but nothing changed until they complained to the Ishikawa Apparel Association. After the group passed on this complaint, Kameda moved the women into temporary housing while he cleaned the converted factory where they slept. It was two months before they could move back into the factory, according to Takahara.

Around August 2012, the workers reached out to Takahara’s group. Could he help the workers negotiate a settlement? Takahara advised the interns to keep working and collect evidence. Over the next few months, Takahara and his colleagues worked out a plan with the Kameda interns.

Takahara, now 62, had been involved in brokering settlements for foreign workers in western Japan for more than a decade.

Because workers who complain have been forcibly deported, Takahara and other union representatives encourage interns to fulfill their contracts. They are meticulous in their documentation: keeping time cards, sending faxes from convenience stores so there is a dated record of the communication, alerting local labor inspectors before bringing in interns to report alleged violations to make sure staff are on hand.

The morning of their escape, Takahara drove the women from Kameda to a convenience store. They sent a fax to the factory requesting paid holiday until Nov. 19, the day their contract expired. Takahara then took them to the local labor standards office to testify about their experience at the factory. The inspectors were expecting them.

In late 2012, Kameda agreed to pay ¥1.3 million each to Lu, Qian and Jiang. In addition, the labor standards bureau ordered Kameda to pay ¥260,000 collectively to the three women for the “homework” they had been required to do on a piece rate. In the end, the women each received about ¥1.4 million, Takahara says.

Kameda said he paid the full amount the labor standards bureau demanded and did everything asked of him. He blames Takahara’s group for stirring up resentment among the workers. “They were completely happy until they left and sued us,” Kameda said.

Protection for interns was strengthened in 2010, putting them under Japanese labor laws for all three years of their internship. But the Japan Federation of Bar Associations, which represents more than 30,000 attorneys, argues the intern program should be scrapped on human rights grounds.

Kameda says his factory no longer employs foreign interns. He thinks Japan should drop the pretense of internships and allow foreigners to work as laborers. “Regardless of the women’s requests, I regret that I didn’t do things properly,” he wrote in an emailed response to questions

  • Steve Jackman

    It is sad to see that abuse, dishonesty, unethical business practices and exploitation of foreign workers by Japanese companies happens at every level, ranging from unskilled foreign workers all the up to senior-level experienced professionals. The Japanese government, bureaucrats, ministries, companies and the judicial system all collude and are complicit in such despicable behavior. This is a cultural problem which Japan needs to address.