Japan sanctioning mass ‘slave labor’ by duping foreign trainees, observers say



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.”

  • Sony

    The reputation of Japan is under enormous strain and the abuse of foreign workers is not going to help the growing loss in good will among Japan’s neighbors.

    It is a dangerous time for Japan. Consumer fear could be stoked around the health risks of consuming Japanese manufactured products due to the deception of the government regarding Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster. This is something that could be leveraged by competing industries to scare consumers in big markets. Anti-whaling is another tool as is the perception of Japanese pedophilia in Manga & Anime and the image of Japanese rearmament and return as a military aggressor…

    Japanese businesses could easily lose double digit share in key markets through highly viral anti-Japanese campaigns run against Japanese brands via social media – with only small amounts of funding from competing brands having devastating effect.

    • Konwhiskey

      One wonders, however, whether all that bad press has to do more with entrenched anti-Japanism more than anything else.

      • Sony

        Sure anti-Japanese sentiment caused the the melt down of nuclear reactors… And everyone on the planet is so happy that Japan has dumped poisonous radioactive waste into the ocean we share. I’m sure the Vietnamese don’t have enough poison dumped on them. Gee thanks a lot.

        Don’t worry about being mature, responsible, professional to your neigbours – its fine to just shield your bosses from blame and bury your head in the radioactive sand. Don’t worry about being accountable.

        Maybe Japan needs to rip off foreign workers from South East Asia because they miss them being slaves. So your idea is that we should forget the long past and accept the current abuse too you say?

        The thing we all laugh about is Japan running around the Pacific with a rubber cheque book trying to buy friends by promising money we all know they don’t have – we all know Japan is bankrupt. It isn’t a secret. What resources does Japan have backing up that Yen? They have Nothing.

      • David Owen

        When you open up your diatribe with a ridiculous statement it makes it utterly impossible to take anything you have to say seriously. Is it your position that Japan willfully caused the problems in Fukushima? Are you just intent on expressing anti Japanese sentiment in order to promote your own interpretation history and it’s present role in the way Japan interacts with it’s neighbors? Surely you read the article. Do you define a measly 2% foreign population as a significant indicator that Japan is “rip[ing] off foreign workers from South East Asia because they miss them being slaves. So your idea is that we should forget the long past and accept the current abuse”? Brother, you need to think a little more about this before spouting

      • Sony

        No one else is to blame for this mess but Japan. Japan chose the nuclear path, they chose that reactor design, and locations. They manage the reactors and it is their responsibility… They are effecting not just Japanese but all of the countries that utilize the Ocean being contaminated.

        This is a deadly serious issue and they have not acted responsibly. TEPCO and the Government are found to habitually hide numerous errors and mismanagement to protect the positions of their senior staff. They have also been found on numerous occasions to have intentionally hidden the level of toxicity and volume of contamination. Discharges into the ocean are being reported several months after the fact.

        It is also disgraceful how Japans government has failed to protect the safety of lives. Both Japanese citizens and foreign workers “nuclear gypsies” have been exploited by a highly corrupt decontamination industry. Many dangerous jobs have been given to low paid illiterate foreign workers who have been given tasks where they do not fully understand the danger to their lives.

    • stev59

      The Chinese are going to attack japan economically, just as they attack the US. Chinas goal is world hegemony

    • stev59

      Chinese pollution is far worse. Chinese coal is loaded with radioactive carbon and also toxic mercury, The rivers of the american west are polluted by mercury from chinese coal burning. Chinese radioactive emissions are greater than Japans

  • David Owen

    Once again, the Japan times doles out another half assed article that provides nothing other than opinion and conjecture without a balanced reporting and enough information that one would expect from a reliable news source. All the news without flair or flavor.

  • Hanten

    This makes Japan look really bad internationally and domestically, and as Japan slides further economically it’ll only get worse. As word gets out and her neighbours’ wealth continue to climb, she’ll find it harder to recruit foreign trainees.

    Another option for Japan is to enforce the existing laws so that no-one is worked to death or hit with enslaving debts, not the foreign trainees nor the native population. Those trainees will help spread the word on Japan’s new fairness and then it’ll be easier to bring in more labor in the future. People who have lived and worked here successfully are going to make far better immigrants for Japan down the track.

    As it is, it looks like either the majority of Japanese people either don’t know or don’t care about the plight of the foreign trainees. So much for the high cultural value placed on the feelings of others.