Last month, a Chinese trainee went on a stabbing rampage at a Hiroshima Prefecture seafood company where he worked, killing the president and an employee and wounding six others.
The man had been a trainee at the oyster-processing plant as part of a government-authorized technical intern program for foreigners. Media reports indicate discord with his employer and coworkers drove him to violence.
Allegations of abuses, including exploitation of cheap labor, confinement, poor or no wages and other rights violations, have been laid against the program from early on, and human rights lawyers are now calling for the system to be terminated.
How does the system work?
The foreign technical intern training program started in 1993, ostensibly as part of Japan’s “international contribution” to increasing skills and knowhow in developing countries.
There are two ways to enter the program. One is to get hired directly by a branch of a major Japanese company. The other route is to get recruited by a “supervising organization,” such as a chamber of commerce, small business association or cooperative, to intern at a small or midsize business.
Most trainees enter via the latter method. According to the Japan International Training Cooperation (JITCO), a government-affiliated body supporting the program, internships are offered in 67 types of vocations, including those in the fields of agriculture, fisheries, construction and food manufacturing.
Who can apply?
According to the Justice Ministry, applicants must be at least 18 and lack the training facilities in their home countries for the skills they seek. Nationality is not a factor.
An estimated 142,000 foreign trainees were enrolled in the program at the end of 2011, with 107,000 from China alone. The others hailed from Vietnam, Indonesia, the Philippines and Myanmar. At the peak, around 2008, there were about 200,000 trainees in Japan.
The trainees are sent via 760 “sending organizations” approved by their home countries and dispatched through the supervising organizations to the employers.
JITCO stresses on its website that it does not officially approve the 760 organizations.
Once the trainees arrive, they can stay for three years.
What problems have been associated with the program?
Although the purported objective of the trainee system is to help developing countries, experts say that in reality, it is being used to pool cheap, unskilled labor for Japanese companies.
Many trainees have said they receive no or very low wages and work in severe conditions, said Shoichi Ibuski, corepresentative of the Lawyers’ Network for Foreign Trainees, which comprises about 130 legal experts.
Other alleged mistreatment includes employers seizing the interns’ passports and bank cards, and holding onto some of their pay as “savings” to prevent them from running away.
“This system has been about bringing cheap labor into Japan from the beginning,” Ibuski said. “The reality is that many trainees’ human rights are being violated in the name of a lenient program that is supposed to be part of an international contribution.”
Do the trainees sue their employers?
Yes. Most recently, the Nagasaki District Court in March ordered a sewing company and a broker to pay ¥10 million in compensation to five former Chinese trainees for illegally forcing them to work long hours and on weekends for ¥300 to ¥400 per hour of overtime.
Last November, the family of a Chinese trainee who died of overwork in 2008 won an undisclosed settlement against his employer, Fuji Denka Kogyo, in Ibaraki Prefecture.
The relatives had sued the firm and the trainee-coordination company for ¥57.5 million after the 31-year-old victim died of cardiac arrest that the local labor office blamed on overwork.
There are about 25 ongoing cases nationwide that are being handled by the lawyer network.
What has been the international reaction to the intern program?
The U.S. State Department has been criticizing the system for the past few years in its annual Trafficking in Persons Report, likening it to human-trafficking.
In its 2012 report, it stated that “media and NGOs continued to report on abuses in the program, though to a lesser extent than in previous years, and abuses included debt bondage, restrictions on movement, unpaid wages and overtime, fraud, and contracting workers out to different employers — elements which may signal trafficking situations.”
In 2011, then-United Nations special rapporteur on the rights of migrants Jorge Bustamante said in his report on Japan that serious human rights violations have been reported on the trainee program that “amount to slavery and trafficking.” He recommended the system be scrapped.
Has the government tried to improve the intern program?
After strong domestic and international criticism, the immigration law was revised in 2009 to ensure that trainees who receive two months of lectures, including Japanese-language training, will be protected by labor laws throughout their three-year internships.
The apprentices are now guaranteed worker rights, including 40 hours a week of regular work, overtime pay, a minimum wage, and compensation for injuries, illness or death at the workplace or during their commutes.
Under the old system, they were only covered by those laws after the second year, when their legal status changed from “trainee” to “apprentice.”
The immigration law was also amended to prohibit the sending organizations from collecting large “deposit” or “penalty” fees from the trainees to prevent them from running away or to make sure they adhere to their contracts.
According to lawyer Ibuski, many trainees often pay about two to three times their annual income to the sending organizations in their home countries as a deposit. This forces them to go into debt and ensures they cannot return home without making enough cash to cover that debt, which was run up even before they arrived in Japan.
“The Japanese law was revised to prohibit such deposits and penalty fees, but it is a domestic law . . . (it) is not effective in other countries,” Ibuski pointed out. “And all it does is prevent the trainees from entering Japan — so why would they or the sending organizations bother to report it?”
Justice Ministry data meanwhile indicate that the mistreatment of apprentices has been rising in the past couple of years despite the legal revisions.
In 2012, 197 organizations and companies were found engaged in “unfair practices,” up 20.9 percent from the 163 cited in 2010.
The mistreatment mainly took the form of unpaid wages and labor law violations. Some apprentices, for example, were forced to work more than 100 hours per month of overtime. Any company caught, however, only faces a maximum five-year ban on using foreign trainees.
What is the situation in other countries?
South Korea set up a foreign trainee system in 1991 that was eventually abolished in 2007 after similar problems with wages and rights violations.
After a national labor shortage developed, it was replaced by the Employment Permit System to allow foreigners with low skill sets to legally work in various fields, including manufacturing, construction and agriculture.
Unlike the Japanese system, the South Korean government signs bilateral memorandums of understanding with each of the sending states clarifying how the employees are chosen and stating other details.
In a proposal in 2011 to abolish the trainee program, the Japan Federation of Bar Associations praised the new South Korean system for specifying that both governments have responsibility for foreign workers under the bilateral agreements but noted that they are still being forced into a weak position.
“The government and business should put an end to discussions on accepting unskilled laborers in the name of ‘international contributions’ and ‘the transfer of technology abroad,’ ” the statement said.
“They should not only look at the simple need to secure unskilled foreign workers, but also guarantee their rights when establishing such a system.”
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