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Many foreigners in Japan have secure lives and careers, but there are also many who, even though here on a technically legal basis, have a more tenuous existence and are abused.

This is especially true of those caught up in human-trafficking — an activity the government tries to combat abroad but apparently ignores at home.

That was the conclusion of a group of experts who met this week at United Nations University for a discussion on globalization, migration and human security in Asia. They believe that to rectify what for many foreigners is a dire situation, the government and employers must raise awareness of their plight.

Cases of exploitation they cited include foreign “trainees” legally in Japan to learn a job skill whose promised wages are not paid in full by employers, and women rounded up by underworld elements and brought to Japan under valid “entertainer” visas who are forced into prostitution.

Australian Sally Cameron, senior project officer for the New South Wales government’s Department of Women, said that human-traffickers have taken great advantage of Japan’s lack of focus in its policy on migrant workers and trafficking.

“While the Japanese government provides considerable funds to international organizations that fight human-trafficking, it has no plan of action at home,” she said, noting the issue is dealt with separately by police, justice, labor and foreign affairs officials.

Cameron said research she conducted in cooperation with UNU included interviews with 20 Filipino women who had been trafficked to Japan, including 19 who said they were forced into the sex trade.

Japan has no law that specifically prohibits human-trafficking, and authorities mainly apply immigration and labor laws against traffickers, she said.

“The government’s incomprehension, where it views the trafficked victims as criminals for having engaged in acts such as prostitution, has kept it from aggressively prosecuting and punishing the criminal organizations involved,” she said.

Cameron added that the “entertainer” visa is another area where there is a substantial gulf between policy and reality.

According to Cameron, in July 2001 the U.S. State Department estimated that as many as 40,000 Filipino women enter Japan every year with such visas, and a large number of them are trafficked, even though the Justice Ministry in September 1996 reiterated its position that these visas only be awarded to professional singers and dancers.

Zha Daojiong, an associate professor of the Renmin University of China in Beijing, said the Japanese public and media tend to associate Chinese people in Japan with crime, without realizing that many Chinese here, especially unskilled workers, undergo many hardships.

A 1990 revision to the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Law led to wide-reaching programs to bring in Chinese under the new “trainee” visa category, and both governments undertook joint measures, such as setting up umbrella companies to recruit and bring in trainees.

But the programs have numerous loopholes, and thus many workers have allegedly been abused, even though their entry into Japan was legal, he said.

Since trainees are only supposed to be in Japan for a short time before taking their new skills home, Zha said, noting they are thus “put in a separate category from other foreigners when it comes to wages and benefits.”

While many work under proper conditions, there have been cases of opaque program management that led to exploitation, he said.

“In August 1998, (some) 150 Chinese trainees staged a sit-in in front of their employer’s office at a Japanese food logistics cooperative in Chiba Prefecture,” Zha said. “Sixteen of them sued the company that December for failing to pay them 100 million yen of promised wages.”

It was later reported, he said, that the Japanese company had agreed to pay a “management fee” to the Chinese entity that dispatched the workers and deducted various fees, such as living expenses, from their salaries. Their 96,000 yen monthly wage came to just 37,000 yen in the end.

“Transparency and effective government intervention in such cases are necessary,” Zha said.

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