Japan has long drawn criticism from global watchdogs for failing to curb human trafficking, perhaps most conspicuously when it comes to foreign women brought in to work in the sex trade.

But the victims also include exploited trainees from abroad who participate in a seemingly official program, a human rights group charges.

The Japan Network Against Trafficking in Persons said at a symposium it organized Saturday at Meiji University in Tokyo that the government-sponsored foreign trainee program must be dismantled now.

The symposium highlighted the U.S. State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons Report released last month that said Japan “does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking.”

The report for the seventh consecutive year gave Japan the second-highest among four ranks in its effort to stamp out the practice. Japan was the only OECD member state that failed to secure the highest rank.

The U.S. report said the Japanese government has yet to address the problem of forced labor allegedly rampant in its Industrial Trainee and Technical Internship Program, where many trainees, mostly Chinese, have fallen victim to “extortionate contracts” and lack of freedom.

Run by the Japan International Training Cooperation (JITCO), the foreign technical intern training program kicked off in 1993, supposedly with the aim of nurturing skilled talent in developing countries.

But this objective aside, the program has been widely viewed as a way to exploit cheap foreign labor. Allegations are rampant about harsh working conditions, poor wages and a lack of privacy.

The problem apparently came to a head in March, when a Chinese trainee, identified by earlier reports as Chen Shuangxi, went on a rampage at an oyster-shucking company on an island in Hiroshima Prefecture, killing the president of the firm and a female co-worker, and injuring five other co-workers.

Reports say he was harassed in the workplace by his boss. Chen was planning to visit his mother, wife and son in China in May before the attack.

Trainee Li Hua Juan, who came to Japan in May 2012 and worked for about a year at a sewing plant in Tokushima Prefecture under the program, recounted to the symposium her dreadful experience.

“I recently discovered I was being underpaid by my employer the whole time,” she said through an interpreter. “The company was paying me only a fraction of what I deserved, ignoring about 60 hours of overtime every month,” she said in reference to labor beyond the mandated limit.

Two other Chinese nationals, who declined to give their identities for fear of retaliation, likewise decried the way their company has abused them and concealed its misdeeds.

“I brought my personal seal from China, but my employer took it away a day after I joined the company and still hasn’t returned it to me. I found out they’ve got a fake wage slip prepared with my seal on it, even though it doesn’t contain any truth about the meager wages I’ve been paid,” one of them said.

The two called for greater awareness of their “absolutely powerless” plight, which they believe other trainees are experiencing.

“What is desperately needed now is to scrap the JITCO program and establish a whole new alternative to accept foreigners as full-fledged laborers, and not trainees,” so employers will treat them with respect, said Ippei Torii, who last month became the first Japanese to receive the U.S. State Department’s 2013 TIP Report Heroes Award for his years-long dedication to fighting human trafficking in Japan.

As secretary-general of the Solidarity Network with Migrants Japan, Torii has led the group’s lobbying campaign to educate both a domestic and global audience on the reality of Japan’s foreign trainee program. Hopes are running high that this landmark recognition of his activities will ignite even keener public awareness about the program’s flaws.

“Given Japan’s shrinking population, the present internship program, with its system so fundamentally ill-thought-out, even risks misguiding Japan’s national labor policies if left unfixed,” Torii said.

The rights group sent a petition to the government Sunday demanding that it end the trainee program.

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