In October 1999, 19 Chinese trainees came to the Takefu city office pleading for help. In their first year in Japan as interns, the women had been promised ¥50,000 a month, but scraped by on ¥10,000. The next year, as technical trainees, they should have received ¥115,000 a month. After health insurance, pension, rent, forced “savings” and administrative fees for the staffing agency in China were deducted, what they got was ¥15,000. The women walked for five hours from their workshop in the mountains of Fukui Prefecture to talk with the director of their placement organization at his home. Instead of receiving answers, they were turned away with harsh words — and even blows.

The incident was discussed in the Diet and became a symbol of the profound problems with the trainee system. Shortly afterwards, citizens’ groups formed to protect the rights of trainees and organizations already working to protect foreigners’ rights found a new focus. More than 10 years later, leaders of these groups say they have seen some positive changes, but abuses of the system are still endemic.

Started in 1993, the aim of the Technical Intern Training Program is to “provide training in technical skills, technology (and) knowledge” to workers from developing countries, according to the Japan International Training Cooperation Organization (JITCO), which oversees the program. But in practice, say advocacy groups, the majority of both trainees and the companies who accept them think of the relationship primarily as regular employment. A convoluted placement system complicates the situation: Between the trainees — the majority of whom come from China — and the workplace where they end up, there are usually at least three intermediary organizations involved, in Japan and the participants’ native country.

Until 2009, the number of trainees in Japan had been rising steadily, with more than 100,000 participating in the program in 2008. The majority of trainees are brought in under the auspices of JITCO. After the global economic crisis, the number of JITCO-authorized trainees fell in 2009 to 50,064 (down from 68,150). According to the latest figures, the total for 2010 was 39,151 as of October.

The Tokyo-based Advocacy Network for Foreign Trainees has served as the national umbrella organization for trainee advocacy groups since 1999. The network’s members are 90 researchers, lawyers, journalists and other individuals, and 10 groups including labor unions and local trainee advocacy groups.

The network provides legal counsel to trainees in their own language, calls on unions to negotiate with companies and contracting organizations, finds lawyers to represent trainees in court, and provides shelter for trainees who stand up to their employers.

Yang Zhen (whose name has been changed to protect his identity) is one of five former trainees and interns living in the network’s shelter in Tokyo. He came to Japan from Dalian, China, in January 2007. Working as a plasterer, he was responsible for mixing large amounts of mortar for four other workers. As a result he developed an uncommon and painful collapse of the wrist bone called Kienbock’s disease. When he sought treatment, his employers pressured him not to reveal his working conditions. Yang is now applying for workers’ compensation with the help of the Zentoitsu Workers Union and the Tokyo Occupational Safety and Health Center, and is claiming ¥3 million in unpaid wages.

To support Yang and others like him, the advocacy network relies entirely on grass-roots support in the form of volunteers and donations. Like most of its member organizations, the network receives no funding from the government, and trainees usually hear of the groups via word of mouth. The network’s members exchange and compile information from cases they have dealt with locally every month, and meet once a year to draft recommendations to the government.

But information-sharing is often a one-way street, says Hiroshi Nakajima, one of the network’s organizers. When a company is turned in for abuses of the program, the Justice Ministry investigates and can punish the placement organization or company by putting a halt on new trainee visas. But Nakajima calls the process a “black box,”; questions go unanswered during investigations, he says, and the resulting punishments are not even made public.

The network is sometimes able to get information on banned companies from the ministry upon request, but not in every case. Often the group only knows that a placement organization or company has been punished when they find that a firm no longer has any trainees.

“Because the immigration authorities don’t publicize the names of the organizations that have been convicted of wrongdoing, we have no way of knowing which organizations should be banned from accepting trainees and until when,” says Nakajima.

Ichiro Takahara of the Fukui Advocacy Network for Foreign Trainees says the local labor bureau also fails to provide relevant public information. Takahara’s group has assisted around 250 interns and trainees since its formation in June 2000 following the Takefu incident.

“The fact that the Labor Standards Inspection Office doesn’t make public the names of the offending companies invites those companies to continue reaping the benefits of engaging in illegal activities,” says Takahara. This, he explains, accounts for the fact that 85 percent of the companies employing trainees that were investigated by the Fukui Labor Bureau in 2009 had committed labor or safety infractions. This was the lowest rate in five years.

“The sense of guilt over committing a labor violation is less than that over committing a traffic violation,” he says.

In the face of these nondisclosure policies, the groups tend to focus on settlements for individual trainees over administrative punishment for companies and organizations. Helping trainees fight their battles also gives them awareness of their rights. The importance of this process of empowerment cannot be underestimated, argues Takaharu Hayashi, who runs the Noami Counseling Center in Aichi, the prefecture with the highest number of trainees in 2008 according to JITCO.

“They have to get smarter and know all the rules, and they have to foster solidarity,” explains Hayashi. “When they do, companies will start to feel like they can’t get around following the rules.”

And trainees have started to exercise their rights in increasing numbers, says Naomi Hayazaki, who has been involved with the Rights of Immigrants Network in Kansai (RINK) since 2000.

“Trainees who come are becoming less reluctant to come out and talk about the problems they are having. And that is a big difference. They are aware of their rights. It is clear there are many more who are aware now,” she says.

Zhang Peian and Fan Hongxian, from China’s Jiangsu Province, epitomize this trend. They arrived in Japan around three years ago and were employed in construction. They looked forward to living in prosperous Japan, and hoped to learn skills and make money before returning to China to settle down with their families.

But working with a terrible boss, said Zhang, made life “like hell.” When they were slow to understand commands or made mistakes, or when their boss had simply had a bad day, they were verbally abused and physically beaten, sometimes with a shovel. ¥25,000 was deducted from their paychecks monthly under the guise of “insurance,” an amount they found to be inflated by ¥20,000. And they were never paid overtime during their three years at the company.

The two hired a lawyer independently and hope to be paid soon and return to their families. They are worried that even if they win their suit, the employer will refuse to pay. And if those fears are realized, they are concerned about whether they can count on help from the authorities.

“We don’t want to leave Japan with regret,” said Zhang, noting that other trainees who received the same treatment at the company had left Japan without reaching a settlement.

The advocacy groups who help trainees seek reparation also face the problem of providing shelter. Trainees whose contracts have been broken are evicted from the company dorm and then need a place to stay, while those who file claims against their current employer may face intimidation and need protection.

“When an intern or trainee goes to report unpaid wages to the local labor standards bureau, there have been many cases where they return to their domicile or workplace to find someone from their company or hiring association waiting to force them to return to their home country, sometimes making them leave that very day. In order to prevent that, in Fukui we have decided to have them leave early in the morning on the day they make their report, and stay in a shelter until they have completed arbitration or until they return to their country,” says Takahara.

While the network in Tokyo is able to provide a dedicated shelter, others struggle. Takahara says he would like to see the municipal government build refuges or assist in funding privately built shelters.

Hayazaki of RINK concurs. “If there was a shelter, that would be wonderful. But without that we just have some trainees stay with people we know in their homes. Right now I don’t really have anywhere I could send them. It’s a big problem,” she says.

Until July, an even bigger problem was that for the first year of employment the trainees were classified as “interns” and left outside of labor law protections altogether. That is no longer the case.

“It’s not a huge change, but when we first started, the government dismissed the problem as something only relevant to a few bad companies,” explains Hayazaki. “But in these 10 years, they have realized that it is not merely one part, that it is a big problem. The change in July was also a result of that recognition. And while I’m not overly enthusiastic about it, I do recognize that by having all trainees under labor law it is easier to protect their rights.”

Both RINK and the Fukui Advocacy Network for Foreign Trainees noted that the most common cases they have been dealing with recently involve trainees seeking overtime and unpaid wages due to them from their first year as interns.

Despite piecemeal improvements, all four advocacy groups The Japan Times spoke to agree that the myriad problems of the trainee system ultimately stem from a refusal to admit the necessity of foreign labor in Japan, and a reluctance to let industries struggling to pay minimum wage, such as garment production, fade from existence.

As long as these fundamental issues go unaddressed, and as long as a parallel employment system for foreign migrants exists under the 17-year-old trainee program, the groups expect to be kept busy.

“Even with the new law, things will not change. It wasn’t just the interns’ rights but also the rights of trainees that have been consistently violated,” explains Nakajima.

“However the system is revised, calling people who are in fact laborers either ‘trainees’ or ‘interns’ and putting them in a special category invites injustice and wrongdoing,” adds Takahara.

Interpretation provided by Li Chen and Matthew Hafner. Send comments and story ideas to community@japantimes.co.jp

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