The first word En learned when he began working at a construction site in Japan after moving from China was “baka,” Japanese for “idiot.”
The 31-year-old farmer is one of 50,000 Chinese who signed up for a government-run program that promises foreigners the chance to earn money while acquiring valuable on-the-job training. Like many of his compatriots, he hoped to leave Japan with cash in his pocket and a new set of skills that would give him a better shot at work at home.
“My Japanese colleagues would always say baka to me,” said En, who spoke only on condition that his full name not be revealed. “I am exhausted physically and mentally.”
His problem is not the bullying by Japanese colleagues, nor the two-hour commute each-way or the mind-numbing work that largely consists of breaking apart old buildings. It is the ¥1 million he borrowed to take part in the Industrial Trainee and Technical Internship Program, ostensibly to cover traveling expenses and other “fees” charged by middlemen.
The loan has left him a virtual slave to Japan’s labor-hungry construction industry. “I cannot go back before I make enough money to repay the debt,” he said.
Japan is desperately short of workers to pay taxes to fund pensions and health care for its rapidly graying population, but it is almost constitutionally allergic to immigration. Less than 2 percent of the populace is classified as “non-Japanese” by the government; by comparison, around 13 percent of British residents are foreign-born.
This results, critics say, in ranks of poorly protected employees brought in through a government-sanctioned back door that is ripe for abuse and exploitation.
“This trainee program is a system of slave labor. You cannot just quit and leave. It’s a system of human trafficking, forced labor,” said Ippei Torii, director of Solidarity Network With Migrants Japan, a nongovernmental group that supports foreign workers.
Around a quarter of Japan’s population of 127 million is 65 or older, and this proportion is expected to jump to 40 percent in the coming decades. The heavily indebted government, which owes creditors more than twice what the economy generates annually, is scrambling to find the money to cover the welfare and health costs associated with the burgeoning ranks of the elderly even as the taxpayer base shrinks.
Japan’s average birthrate of around 1.4 children per woman, far below the level necessary to replenish the national workforce, is ratcheting up the pressure.
In most developed nations, this kind of shortfall is plugged by immigration, but Japan allows no unskilled workers into the country amid fears by some they would threaten the nation’s culture of consensus, an argument others view as mere cover for xenophobia.
But in 1993, as the economy was on the way down from its bubbly 1980s zenith, the government began the foreign trainee program, which allows tens of thousands of workers, mostly from China, Vietnam and Indonesia, to come to Japan and supply labor for industries including textiles, construction, farming and manufacturing.
The program, however, has not been without its critics. Japan’s top ally, the U.S., has even singled it out, with the State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons Report for years slamming the program’s “deceptive recruitment practices.”
“The (Japanese) government did not prosecute or convict forced labor perpetrators despite allegations of labor trafficking in the TTIP,” it said this year, using the program’s acronym.
Past allegations include unpaid overtime work, karoshi (death from overwork), and all kinds of harassment, including company managers restricting the use of toilets or demanding sexual services.
The government rejects claims the program is abusive, yet acknowledges there have been some upstream problems. “It is true that some involved in the system have exploited it, but the government has acted against that,” an immigration official said. “It is not a system of slave labor.”
The official insisted it was not in authorities’ power to control the behavior of middlemen but insisted they were not allowed to charge deposit fees. “It is also banned for employers to take away trainees’ passports,” he added.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has unveiled a plan to expand the program that would allow foreign trainees to stay in Japan for five years instead of three, and says such labor will increasingly be needed, particularly in the construction boom ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Abe is also aware that the nation’s health care sector must increasingly look abroad to fill the shortage of workers.
“It has been said that we will need 1 million caregivers for the elderly by 2025, which would be impossible to handle only with the Japanese population,” said Tatsumi Kenmochi, a manager at a care home near Tokyo that employs Indonesian nurses.
For Kenmochi, foreign staff are a precious commodity and the sector must do as much as it can to make them feel welcome. “It must be hard to leave home and work overseas,” he said. “We make sure that they don’t get homesick, listening to them and sometimes going out to have a warm bowl of noodles with them.”
Torii of Solidarity Network With Migrants Japan said this is just the kind of attitude Japan needs to learn: “The issue is not whether we accept immigrants or not. They are already here, playing a vital role in our society.”