National / Media | MEDIA MIX

Foreign trainees easily exploited as bosses take advantage of system

Several weeks ago, TV Asahi’s nightly news show “Hodo Station” ran a special report on the uncertain future of Japanese agriculture.

The report mentioned an incident last November in Kumamoto Prefecture, where a farmer and his wife were murdered and their niece was critically injured in an attack believed to have been carried out by a Chinese trainee who subsequently committed suicide.

The incident is still under investigation and relatives of the murdered couple were shown visiting the offices of The Japan International Training Cooperation Organization to gather information that would give them some clue as to why the trainee might have killed the farmer and his wife.

JITCO officials couldn’t provide answers, but when the relatives commented that the “training system” may have had something to do with the killings, one official said defensively that the system was designed to prevent the kind of “chaos” that would result if the country opened its borders to foreign labor.

It was a startling admission for a public official given that cameras were in the room, but TV Asahi didn’t follow it up. Foreign trainees weren’t the main subject of the report, and though several made an appearance toward the end when the reporter visited a strawberry farm in the Kanto region, they were treated like footnotes.

The trainee system remains controversial and major Japanese media avoid talking about it directly. Consequently, members of the public still seem baffled when they encounter Asian people working in farms and factories throughout Japan. In the past two months I’ve seen at least two TV travel shows in which celebrities have tried to strike up conversations with field workers on Japanese farms only to discover to their shock that the workers didn’t speak Japanese. The celebrities’ ignorance was almost touching.

The controversy should have heated up after last month’s ruling by the Kumamoto District Court, which found in favor of four female Chinese trainees who sued their employer and the agent that arranged for that employment. The trainees were awarded unpaid wages amounting to ¥12.8 million as well as damages to the tune of ¥4.4 million. The plaintiffs, who worked for a sewing company, said they were forced to work up to 15 hours a day with only two or three days off a month. They did not receive overtime pay.

Trainees are ostensibly in Japan to learn some sort of skill they can take back to their home country and make a living from. They are not supposed to work overtime because technically they aren’t here as employees, but no one has believed that lie for years now, and the JITCO official’s admission attests to the fact that the real reason for the trainee program is to provide Japanese businesses with cheap labor. This system has given rise to a racket involving semiprivate brokers who traffic in workers from Asia who want to come to Japan and make a lot of money in a short period of time.

The Kumamoto case wasn’t the first in which trainees allegedly have turned on their employers violently, and it wasn’t the first time somebody died as a result. Japanese courts seem to be coming around to the conclusion that these workers are being exploited unfairly. Presently, there are 13 lawsuits being heard in Japanese courts brought by representatives of disgruntled trainees, as well as three arbitration cases.

One that could attract attention involves a construction company in Kawasaki that sued some Chinese trainees who had joined a labor union so that the union could negotiate with the company for unpaid wages. The company sued for “confirmation” that it didn’t owe the trainees any money. The trainees then countersued. The lawyer for the labor union is confident that the ruling, due in May, will favor the trainees and expose the reality that they are here to work and thus deserve protection just like any other workers.

Exposure requires media coverage, but the trainee issue tends to be ignored by the press except when a foreign worker breaks the law. Also, the media’s take on the issue stresses the supply side in that foreign workers are characterized as being desperate to work here, and while that’s true to a certain extent, stressing this view downplays the fact that the trainee program is controlled by the demand side. JITCO only “accepts” as many workers as there are positions offered by companies, which is logical but nevertheless points up the reality that the shots are called by the companies, whose interests are keeping down costs, not training workers.

The worldwide recession has only made this fact more obvious. According to a Jan. 16 Kyodo News report, JITCO says that the number of trainees has decreased significantly “because of the recession.” Company “requests” for trainees between January and November 2009 totaled 47,772, a 27.5 percent drop from the same period in 2008. An expert told Kyodo that the situation for small- and medium-size manufacturers is so dire that “they can’t even afford cheap labor,” meaning foreign trainees.

The situation for foreign caregivers is more honest in that their training can lead to permanent full-time positions in Japan if they pass the proper tests, but during their training period they still get paid below minimum wage.

Economic Partnership Agreements set up with Indonesia and the Philippines allow caregiver trainees to come to Japan. As with the JITCO program, the number accepted is dependent on requests from possible employers, and that number has also decreased because more Japanese are seeking this type of work.

Trainee programs are fundamental to understanding the larger issue of whether or not Japan should allow more foreigners to live and work here, since they provide an indication of how transparent the authorities are willing to be in their duty to address these developments. So far, they haven’t been transparent at all, and the media have failed in their responsibility to ensure that they are.

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