A labor office in Ibaraki Prefecture has deemed that a Chinese trainee at a local firm died in 2008 due to overwork, marking the first recognized karōshi death of a foreign intern under a government-authorized training program.

But the lawyer representing his next of kin say his case is just the tip of the iceberg among trainees working in conditions akin to slavery.

Jiang Xiaodong died of cardiac arrest at age 31 in June 2008 after working more than 100 hours of overtime in his final month, prompting his family to file a workers’ compensation claim in August 2009.

Jiang came to Japan as a trainee in 2005 and was working at a plating factory of metal processing firm Fuji Denka Kogyo in Itako, Ibaraki Prefecture, according to the Kashima labor standards inspection office.

Lawyer Shoichi Ibuski, representing his family, said Jiang had worked about 150 hours of overtime a month since his second year and generally had only two days off a month.

“There are many foreign trainees who died after being forced to work excessively, but many of the cases have been shrouded in darkness,” Ibuski said. “The latest case (involving Jiang) is just the tip of the iceberg, and the overtime recognition came too late.”

Accused of violating the labor standard law, Fuji Denka Kogyo President Takehiko Fujioka, 67, and the company were ordered last month to pay a fine of ¥500,000 each.

The training program for foreigners was introduced in 1993, with a stated aim of helping enhance technological expertise and nurturing human resources in developing countries.

Foreign interns were originally exempted from domestic labor laws during the training period in their first year in Japan. But with a spate of work-related problems breaking out across the nation, the Immigrant Control and Refugee Recognition Law was revised, and since last July interns have been covered by labor laws provided they undertake two months of designated classroom lectures, such as those on the Japanese language.

About 200,000 foreigners stayed in Japan under the program in 2009. In the year from April 2009, 27 interns died from work accidents or illness.

According to Ibuski, most of them were in their 20s and 30s. He said foreign interns “are abused under poor (working) conditions, under the premise of transfer of technology or international contribution. It is just like slavery.”

Earlier, Jiang’s employer said he was considering changing the schedule to share Jiang’s work with other trainees.