The Justice Ministry began looking at ways to reform the long-criticized foreign trainee program on Tuesday, including a recommendation to sharpen penalties for employers who abuse trainees.

A panel of experts appointed to review the program has spent the past eight months probing allegations that foreigners have been granted technical trainee status only to be exploited as cheap or indentured labor.

Some panel members advocate scrapping the program altogether, but most argue it should continue but that it requires fundamental reforms, immigration official Kuniaki Ishioka said on Monday.

The program, officially called the Industrial Trainee and Technical Internship Program, dates from 1993. At its launch, it was billed as part of Japan’s “international contribution” to fostering basic industrial skills in developing countries.

Critics saw it as a pretext under which Japan could obtain foreign labor for low-skilled jobs that were hard to fill, such as opening oysters.

“We need to restructure the program to prevent further human rights violations and make sure it will no longer be seen as exploiting them as cheap labor,” the panel said in its recommendations submitted to Justice Minister Sadakazu Tanigaki on Tuesday.

Proposals include subjecting employers to stricter oversight, for example by authorizing immigration officials to investigate trainees’ working conditions. Under the current framework, Tokyo-based Japan International Training Cooperation Organization supervises employers, but its warnings are not legally binding and its oversight is therefore ineffective, the panel said.

It also urged that trainees be allowed to walk away from employers who mistreat them, something the current framework doesn’t permit.

The panel emphasized the need for a crackdown on unpaid wages, recommending that violations be punished as rights violations. Currently, employers found guilty of abuse or extortion are punishable under the criminal code, but the panel proposes that they be subject to additional penalties, although it stopped short of suggesting what those should be.

Furthermore, the panel said the current three-year period is too short for a trainee to become a “highly skilled professional,” as the program proclaims. It said trainees should be given the chance to extend their period of stay by an additional two years, provided their employers are operating by the rules and the trainees themselves are showing talent.

In April, the government said foreigners interested in apprenticing in Japan’s construction industry could extend their period of stay by up to two years — as it anticipated a labor shortage ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Olympic games. The extension proposed by the panel is under a different framework, and would be applied permanently if approved.

Since some of the panel’s proposals would require radical legal revisions, it remains to be seen how many will be implemented. The Justice Ministry will examine the recommendations and, if necessary, submit bills to amend related laws to the Diet “as soon as possible,” Ishioka said.

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