Practically every working condition endured by 36-year-old Sajidur Rahman during his 4 1/2-year stint at a Yokohama factory is illegal under the Labor Standards Law.
Until he was suddenly fired in February, the Bangladeshi worked 12-hour night shifts at the plant, which produces cellular phone parts.
Rahman was not allowed to take breaks, even for meals, and was given just one day off per month on average.
He received just 900 yen per hour. He was not paid for overtime, and he did not get night-time allowances or a bonus.
To top it off, Rahman’s boss often reduced his wages, complaining that he made mistakes on the job.
He chose to stick with it, however, believing he had no right to complain because he lacked a work visa.
“I thought I had no choice but to take what they offered,” said Rahman, who came to Japan in 1997 and has lived here illegally ever since.
“I knew that Japan’s economy has been going down, and there aren’t so many job opportunities left for an overstayer like me.”
Japan’s protracted economic slump has taken its toll on workers, as illustrated by the nation’s high unemployment rate and stagnant wages.
The jobless rate remains above 5 percent, having hit a record high 5.5 percent in December, while the number of unemployed increased to 3.75 million in April, according to government statistics.
Among those hit hardest are foreigners who have overstayed their visas and are working illegally. They often fall victim to sudden layoffs and other forms of corporate discrimination that are banned under the Labor Standards Law.
Those who keep working illegally usually have to endure severe conditions, including long hours, inadequate pay and a lack of even the minimum number of legally mandated holidays, according to Miyoko Honda, secretary general of the Labor Union for Migrant Workers, the first such body catering to foreign workers in Japan, including those who have overstayed their visas.
“People who overstay their visas are the first to be fired or to have their wages cut in an unlawful manner, because employers feel such workers, who lack legitimate residency status, will be reluctant to complain,” Honda said.
Established in November, the union currently has 40 foreign members, including 23 illegal immigrants. Most of them contacted the union after being dismissed and suffering years of working under illegal conditions, Honda said.
“In addition, foreign workers are often unaware that, regardless of their residency status, their rights as workers are protected by labor laws, just like Japanese workers,” she said.
Rahman contacted the union after being fired in February, and has since been negotiating with his former employers over 4.6 million yen in extra payments and compensation that he claims he should have been paid under the Labor Standards Law.
His former employers have thus far told him that they are willing to pay just 650,000 yen.
Rahman plans to return to Bangladesh as soon as these negotiations are settled.
“Though the amount of money I have sent home is less than I originally planned, I guess it is time to leave, because there aren’t so many job opportunities here,” he said. “There are a lot of disadvantages to living without a visa here, including the lack of medical insurance, and it is just not worth staying under the current economic situation.”
The number of illegal foreign workers has been on the decline since it peaked at 298,646 in 1993.
At the beginning of this year, there were 224,067 foreigners of this description in Japan, about 8,000 fewer than a year earlier, according to the Justice Ministry Immigration Bureau.
While there are no data available detailing the current employment conditions endured by illegal workers in general, statistics on Japanese-Brazilians, who have special privileges when it comes to work visas, may provide insight into the plight of foreign workers engaged in unskilled manual labor.
According to one survey on Japanese-Brazilian workers and their families conducted last year by a labor ministry affiliate, 25 percent of 1,706 people surveyed said they were unemployed, while 38 percent said they were unable to send any money home to their relatives in Brazil.
Of the 1,250 respondents who were employed at the time of the survey, 43 percent said they earned less than 200,000 yen a month. Only 62 percent said they were covered by social welfare programs, including health insurance.
Hiroshi Komai, a Tsukuba University sociology professor who specializes in immigration issues, said the plight of foreign unskilled workers can also be attributed to the hollowing out of Japanese industry, whereby firms move their manufacturing operations to developing countries in search of cheaper labor.
“The hollowing out (of manufacturing) has reduced the merit for foreigners to work in Japan, because service firms usually pay unskilled workers less than manufacturers do,” he said. “It is no longer worth taking the great risk of living without a visa in Japan, which offers no social benefits to such foreigners.”
During the asset-inflated bubble years of the late 1980s, the argument that Japan should accept more foreign workers to make up for the serious labor shortage in manufacturing gained momentum.
This notion was again widely discussed by the media, business leaders and scholars around 1998, as it dawned on experts that the aging of Japan’s population would create a future labor shortage.
Amid the ongoing economic slump, however, the Japanese public seems less tolerant of an influx of foreign workers than it was a decade ago.
According to a Cabinet Office survey conducted in 1999, 49.4 percent of 3,000 Japanese polled said it was “not good” for foreigners to stay in Japan without visas, while 40.4 percent said it was wrong but “inevitable.”
In a similar survey conducted in 1990, 32.1 percent of the respondents said illegal workers were undesirable, while 55 percent said their presence was inevitable.
According to another survey released by the office last year, 76.3 percent of the respondents said that, rather than import workers, Japan should make greater efforts to increase employment opportunities for people in the country or improve individual productivity.
Just 16.3 percent said the country should grant visas to unskilled foreign workers.
While public attitudes toward foreign unskilled labor may have wavered over the years, the government has maintained a hardline immigration policy, providing illegal workers with no humanitarian assistance.
Komai of Tsukuba University said the government’s primary concern has been to avoid the social costs of importing unskilled foreigners that Germany and other Europeans countries had to endure.
“The import of foreign workers brings these countries an increased crime rate and extra spending to help foreigners assimilate into mainstream society, while creating social tension, as seen in xenophobic movements such as the neo-Nazis,” he claimed.
“But these costs are negative aspects of the benefits brought by immigrants, and what Japan has done to overstaying workers is merely to exploit their labor while giving almost no consideration to their human rights.”
This attitude toward illegal foreign workers appears to be held by employers as well as the government.
During the construction of an apartment balcony in Tochigi Prefecture in September, 34-year-old Bangladeshi Shaukat Hossain lost his right thumb while trying to bend a steel pipe on a roller machine.
His employer initially refused to cover his medical fees, totaling 1.34 million yen, or pay him legally mandated compensation, telling Hossain he had no right to claim workers’ accident insurance because he had no working visa.
In February, he contacted a Tokyo-based citizens’ group that seeks to uphold foreigners’ rights and successfully forced his former employer to pay his medical fees and compensation.
“Japanese employers assume that we can’t ask for help (from authorities) due to the lack of residency status and that we will leave or be forced to leave the country eventually,” Hossain said.
“This attitude is very much like that of the Japanese government, which has given its tacit approval to our presence here for its own benefit, while ignoring any responsibility for humanitarian concerns.”
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