Foreign workers fear exploitation as Olympic projects gather steam

by Hifumi Okunuki

Special To The Japan Times

My first Labor Pains column of the new fiscal year will look at the government’s recent proposal for bringing in foreign workers.

Various proposals on easing immigration restrictions for foreign workers have been bandied about in recent years, but they were inevitably scrapped because “Japan is but a tiny island nation.” (In fact, Japan is the fifth-largest island nation in the world, after Australia, Indonesia, Madagascar and Papua New Guinea.) Incidentally, there are currently 2.03 million foreign residents and more than 700,000 foreign workers in Japan, so the country is already quite multinational and multiethnic in composition.

Discussion on this topic was reignited earlier this year by a Jan. 3 Kyodo News report headlined, “Government aims to increase hiring of foreign construction workers to make up for labor shortfalls ahead of 2020 Olympic Games.” The article went on to say that the ruling Liberal Democratic Party is considering whether to expand the use of ginō jisshūsei, or technical interns, from Vietnam and other Asian countries to meet the construction rush ahead of the games. Reading this article sent a shiver down my spine and spoiled my new-calendar-year mood.

A group dedicated to building Japan’s workforce and boosting productivity in the LDP’s Headquarters for Japan’s Economic Revitalization subsequently proposed on March 26 to extend the limit foreign interns can stay in the country from three years to five years.

On April 3, the Japan Federation of Bar Associations (Nichibenren) issued a statement that strongly opposed the government’s plan to expand the intern system. (See the report at here.)

People working as “technical interns” are employed under a trainee/technical intern system that was set up by the government and small business groups in 1993. The supposed purpose of this system was to bring in foreigners to learn through training and internship the superior technology, skills and knowledge of Japan, so that they could then go back and contribute to the economic development of their home country. The reality, however, was very different.

The first year was devoted to “training,” meaning that the “trainee” had no protection under labor law. They gained that protection in the second year of internship. The reality was a form of modern slavery, as the trainees were simply low-wage earners: bathroom breaks were timed using stopwatches in order to dock wages, their private lives were closely monitored, and their passports and bank passbooks were confiscated. Anyone who dared to complain was driven to the airport and pushed onto a plane back to their home country. The U.S. State Department slammed the practice as “modern-day human trafficking and forced labor in Japan.”

Several court cases were pursued over such vicious practices and trainees began demanding to be treated as human beings. The Tsu District Court ruled in the Sanwa Service case on March 18, 2009, that “foreign trainees” are in fact workers/employees and must be paid wages and overtime in line with the minimum wage. The verdict in this case, thankfully, obliterated the system of trainees.

The combination of the verdict and the scolding given by the U.S. — ironically, this may have had the greatest impact — finally gave the government the catalyst it needed to reform the system. In 2009, the Immigration Law was reformed to eliminate the system of trainees not protected by labor law.

However, the system survives to this day in the form of the foreign technical intern system, whose purpose remained premised on the “importance of international cooperation and contribution to the development of other countries’ economic development through the transfer of skills to these interns.” Technical interns were issued visas for up to three years before they would be sent packing to their home country.

What also persists to this day is the horrible working and living conditions of the “interns” themselves. Although on paper they are protected by labor law, their employers simply ignore it in many cases around the country.

If anything, employers learned valuable lessons and tricks about how to get away with even greater abuse, and rely on such pretty words as “helping developing countries” and “human-resource development.”

Government and industry — particularly those with serious labor shortages such as agriculture, forestries, fisheries, manufacturing and textiles — collude to exploit these interns as low-wage workers in long-term positions without any employment responsibility. We have reached the point that industry in general can no longer survive in many remote areas without this exploitative system in place.

However, the Kyodo piece drops all pretense, or tatemae, of helping other countries by teaching their workers. We no longer hear flowery phrases such as “international cooperation” or “technological transfer.” Rather, policymakers openly discuss the need to assuage worker shortages ahead of the 2020 Olympic Games when construction labor demand will peak. Cheap foreign workers have become the go-to objects of exploitation, particularly for jobs that even young Japanese workers don’t want to do. The problem was that the bosses need more than three years of exploitation, so in its infinite wisdom, the LDP has come out with a plan to extend the period to five years, all the while careful to note that they must return to their home country after that period. Apparently we don’t want those lowly foreign workers living here long term, do we?

The Kyodo report reveals that the LDP has completely departed from the original stated goals of the intern system (that is, to teach skills, et cetera) and intends simply to extend the ranks of cheap foreign construction workers. Lawmakers have forgotten the reports of the cruel treatment that was meted out to trainees just five years earlier. How nice it would be if our country’s leaders could remember the words of Swiss writer Max Frisch: “We asked for workers. We got people instead.”

Hifumi Okunuki teaches at Sagami Women’s University and serves as executive president of Tozen Union (Zenkoku Ippan Tokyo General Union). She can be reached at tozen.okunuki@gmail.com. On the second Thursday of each month, Hifumi looks at cases in Japan’s legal history to illustrate important principles in labor law. Comments: community@japantimes.co.jp

  • Franz Pichler

    The U.S. State Department slammed the practice as “modern-day human trafficking and forced labor in Japan.”….. yeah, the great USA!! Deported 2 million (yes 2 million) during the last Obama administration (and counting) – Dear USA, don’t lecture other countries when it comes to Immigration… I’ve seen the slaves in California with my own eyes….

    • Daishi88

      Yeah, Demosthenes is 100% correct. If something is true, it is true regardless of who says it.

      Also, look at your word: deported. America deported 2 million people (and counting). Ok? Does that prove that it is exploitative? America absolutely has problems with its borders, and I don’t think anyone knows how to deal with it fairly and safely. We deported people – that’s not exploitation.

      Now, wait – you’ve “seen the slaves in California”? That’s not a problem of America’s actual immigration system. That’s a problem of the system not working in the first place. People who come into America illegally are difficult to protect.

      In fact, deporting undocumented immigrants is one of the only ways to protect everyone involved. Deporting an undocumented immigrant ends their “enslavement,” but also protects the nation’s immigration laws.

      Obama is acting is good faith by trying to protect the law while also trying to be fair to people. If he is making a mistake, by all means, move to America, get citizenship, run for office and propose a law. You’re free to do so. Hell, you don’t even need to be a citizen to have free speech.

      Try doing that in Japan, though. Wait, sorry; you can’t. You’re talking apples to oranges here. Japan has complete control over their immigration situation. They can close their borders if they want. They let in ONLY the immigrants that they want. They discriminate freely. Racial discrimination is open and legal. People aren’t scrambling to come here illegally. There is no protection for them here at all. America at least TRIES.

      • Franz Pichler

        I see your point. However I disagree, the US almost always tries to play the moral high ground but never adheres to it, look at Guantanamo!
        Moreover, I think that a government agency has not right to make such comments. In other posts I agreed that this system is neither perfect for Japan nor for the people coming here. But it is truly insane to talk about “forced labor” and “modern human trafficking”. The people that sign up to this contract (have you ever seen one?) no exactly what they’re entering to so it is neither forced labor nor modern human trafficking. Now, disagreeing with this program is more than ok, I also disagree with it since it is open to a lot of problems. But the way this
        issue is portrayed in this article is comparing “apples and oranges” so I think it was ok for me to do the same. Looks like this kicked of a little discussion which is always positive. I agree, my comment was not fair but I would like to add when a government agency speaks makes such grave accusations it should at least have its “moral house” somewhat in
        order! America is a nation that still hasn’t come to terms with a
        genocide on an epic scale (american indians), a history of slavery and a history of racial segregation only second to South Africa’s apartheid so yes, I think the USA in the form of its government has no right to accuse Japan! America “at least tries” well, that doesn’t help either! It just makes it sound nicer. Close Guantanamo and than you can lecture other nations!

      • Demosthenes

        You suggest that a person needs to be “morally in order” before they can make a moral accusation against someone else. But this is an odd and perhaps dangerous line of thinking, because it’s uncertain as to how a person’s moral standing affects either the truth of their claim or their right to make it. If a thief says “Stealing is against the law” the truth of the argument is not altered by the fact that they are a thief. Stealing IS against the law because that is a fact. If both you and I are alcoholics, I can VALIDLY accuse you of being an alcoholic – that’s because I am not comparing you to myself, but to an objective standard independent of either of us. If you chose to ignore my statement, claiming I have no right to say such things because I too am an alcoholic, then you are ignoring valid truths according to arbitrary and subjective opinions. If a court operated the way you suggest, then nobody could give evidence or prosecute a party, because everyone fails in meeting objective standards in some way or other.

        So, no, the US can freely criticise any country that it likes on issues, as too are other countries free to criticise the US in return. Truth alone deternines the validity of their accusations, and telling people to remain silent because they themselves are not perfect is just silly.

      • Franz Pichler

        I doubt we would be having such interesting and intellectual conversations being alcoholics ;-)

      • Toolonggone

        Regarding your last couple of statements, if you claim that is the premise for moral argument, then, Japan is certainly NOT in the position to accuse their neighbors, either.

      • I take serious issue with your accusation that the US hasn’t faced their racist past. I’d really, really love to hear you tell that to the face of a Freedom Rider, or anyone who marched for Civil Rights, or anyone who has brought a racial discrimination case to court and won.

        You haven’t kicked off a discussion. You’re late to it. Way late.

        Again, you’re so far off topic it’s not funny. America has every right to call out Japan’s racial discrimination because Japan hasn’t begun to try to face it the way we have.

        Note the key words: begin to try. Japan isn’t even trying. The JET Program? That’s just a government-instituted minstrel show. They literally teach kids that, if you see a foreigner, he’s your English teacher. The JET Program is institutionalized racism.

        America is trying. Putting out an effort. And your suggestion that it isn’t is a huge insult to the people who’ve spent decades doing just that.

      • Franz Pichler

        I forgot, America MUST try because they committed genocide (Indians), they raped a continent (Africa/slavery), they napalm bombed civilians in Vietnam, they invaded a FREE democratic country (Panama) and bombed and killed civilians in order to secure their full rights to the Panama Canal (the UN voted 75 to 20 against this intervention/war), they trial nuked the Japanese people when they were already on their knees, and I honestly could go on and on.This are not my personal opinions, these are fact, historical facts. I like the USA, I think they stand for something, mostly good as does Japan, but their government has done so much evil that they are simply hypocritical!

  • Franz Pichler

    Plain wrong, if you pay your pension contributions fully you are 100% eligible for pension payments, foreign resident or japanese national. I know also foreign resident who got and get social welfare as for te right to vote, I know of no country where foreign nationals can vote, except in some local elections and not giving the right to vote to a person that doesn’t hold citizenship is certainly not proof of institutional racism.

  • Demosthenes

    Franz, the US Department of State is the political department responsible for US foreign relations. It, perhaps even more so than any individual person, should be speaking out on these issues because that was the purpose it was created for.

  • Franz Pichler

    If YOU need to pay it yourself or if your employer contributes depends on the contract YOU sign when YOU accept employment. It’s all written in ink in THE contract. Japan is a free country there’s 100% freedom in drafting contracts as in many other democratic capitalist nations. So if a person signs a contract that’s vague or doesn’t specify these payments it might be morally questionable but the person knows form the beginning wht he or she enters to. Get your facts straight from the beginning and discuss pension as well as (paid) holidays when you start working! If you have paid all your contributions into the pension system you are entitled by law (and it’s not some judge or employee at the ministry that makes the decision) to your FULL monthly pension as every other Japanese citizen or foreign resident that has paid into the pensions system FULLY (that’s the keyword as in all other nations) ! Of all the foreigners I know 90% don’t pay into the system!! As for welfare, I agree that the local government will try everything possible not to pay social welfare but that’s the same with Japanese (stories in the past of people starving to death are rare but it happened) – and I would agree 100% with you that this process must be made more transparent. I however disagree with high social welfare, people should work and pay for their own life. But that’s just my personal view on the welfare system be it in Japan or in Europe or anywhere else. Now you say “the Japanese are racist” excuse me but after having read all your slur on Japan I think that you are probably slightly racist yourself…

  • Franz Pichler

    I’m gonna read that. Thanks.

  • Franz Pichler

    Agree, the discussion went totally in the wrong direction.