The government decided Friday to expand the controversial foreign trainee program to counter the nation’s rapidly thinning domestic labor force, which is hobbling the construction industry just when demand is skyrocketing for projects related to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

The latest step, however, came despite long-voiced concerns and criticisms over the program, in which the trainees’ rights have allegedly been violated.

Under the current framework of the internship program, foreigners are granted a three-year visa status as technical interns, supposedly so they can learn about basic industrial expertise and techniques.

After their initial three-year stay, the revision eyes allowing the trainees to extend their stay for up to another two years under the different visa status of “designated activities.”

Also, once they have completed their three years as technical interns, they can temporarily return to their home countries if they want. At a later date, they can return under a “designated activities” visa and work here for up to three years.

The moves comes at a time Japan continues to struggle with the graying demographic of construction workers, of whom less than 10 percent are under 30.

Japan is set to beef up its efforts to prepare for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games as well as rebound from the 2011 triple disasters — the Great East Japan Earthquake, the tsunami and the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant meltdowns — that seriously affected parts of the Tohoku region.

The government is also reportedly considering including nurseries and related occupations in the same program, as the industry is notoriously short-handed and plagued by chronically high turnover.

The latest government step, however, will inevitably add more concerns over violations of trainees’ human rights.

Experts and activists say trainees are underpaid, harassed and abused.

The U.S. State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons Report published last June blasted the program as fraught with allegations such as “extortionate contracts” and attempts to keep trainees on an extremely short leash, most notably by confiscating their passports.

Ostensibly an attempt to nurture basic industrial skills in developing countries, the Industrial Trainee and Technical Internship Program (TTIP) kicked off in 1993 is often considered by critics a subterfuge to lure unskilled foreign labor.

The Japan Federation of Bar Associations on Thursday vehemently objected to the planned move to scale up the contentious program, maintaining it should be discontinued as soon as possible. The lawyers’ group said the program has long denied trainees the freedom of choice in employment, in effect mandating their total subservience to employers.

“Attempts to maintain and expand the program, including extending the period of their stay and green-lighting a repeat of their internship, will only increase the risk of human rights violations,” the group said in a written statement Thursday, reiterating its belief that the state-run program needs to be “abolished swiftly.”

Ippei Torii, a secretary general of the Solidarity Network with Migrants Japan who has for years vociferously campaigned for fairer rights for foreign workers, likewise raised fierce objection to the plan.

Given the program’s original aim, which was to foster skilled talent overseas, “it shouldn’t be used as a way to cope with dwindling domestic labor force,” Torii said.

“The government has to accept foreign workers in a way the protection of their basic human rights is guaranteed,” he continued, adding the rising demand for foreign labor is a keen reminder that it’s time for Japan to begin to officially accept unskilled foreign workers.

Meanwhile, while emphasizing the acute need to accelerate efforts to recover from the 2011 disaster and prepare for the Olympics, Justice Minister Sadakazu Tanigaki told reporters Friday that he is keenly aware that the government needs to take a cautious approach.

Expanding the program “could risk heightening concerns over Japan’s security environment and human rights violations. We need to ensure that we are able to conduct proper immigration policies,” he said

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