2014 death of overworked Filipino trainee recognized as ‘karoshi’ by labor ministry

Kyodo, Staff Report

The April 2014 death by heart failure of a 27-year-old Filipino trainee in Gifu Prefecture has been recognized by the labor ministry as karoshi, or death by overwork, it was learned Monday.

Joey Tocnang came to Japan in August 2011 and worked at a casting company, cutting steel and painting chemicals onto a mold, according to the Gifu Labor Standard Inspection Office.

Before he died of heart failure in the company dorm in April 2014, he had logged up to 122.5 hours of overtime per month, in violation of labor laws, the office said.

Following his death, the labor office recommended that his relatives file for government compensation so that the connection between his job and his death would be looked into. Based on their application, the office recognized the claim in August.

While exploitation in Japan of trainees from developing countries for cheap labor in manufacturing sectors has long been documented and criticized by human rights groups both here and abroad, it is rare for such cases to be officially recognized as overwork and for them to qualify for the government compensation program.

According to Gaikokujin Ginojisshusei Kenri Network, a Tokyo-based advocacy group for foreign trainees, Tocnang’s case marks the second time a karoshi recognition has been granted to a trainee from abroad.

The first, recognized in 2010, involves a Chinese intern who worked at a metal processing company in Itako, Ibaraki Prefecture.

According to media reports, Tocnang, originally from Luzon, was paid the minimum wage by the company. He sent most of his meager salary to his wife and a 5-year-old daughter in the Philippines. He died only three months before he was scheduled to return home.

As of the end of June, a record 210,893 people were working in Japan as job trainees. The number was up 9.5 percent from 192,665 at the end of last year. The government is eyeing a further expansion of the trainee program as the population grays and the labor shortage becomes more severe.

Meanwhile, the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry said in August that a record 3,695 firms that had accepted such workers were violating labor laws in 2015, such as by making them log overtime work without meeting required labor standards.

In March, the Gifu labor office sent the case against the employer of Tocnang — Takahashi Chuzo-jo in Kakamigahara — to prosecutors for labor law violations. In addition to Tocnang, the company overworked two other Filipinos, as well as a Japanese employee, according to the office.