Wednesday, Oct. 31, 2012, was a regular work day at Kameda Co., a family-owned apparel factory housed in rusting corrugated metal buildings in Hakusan, Ishikawa Prefecture. For three Chinese women, it was a day of escape.

At about 6:30 a.m., Ichiro Takahara, a union organizer, rolled up outside the dormitory where the women lived. Lu Xindi, Qian Juan and Jiang Cheng were waiting — they had been secretly plotting this move for months. Takahara drove them to a convenience store and then to the local labor standards office.

The story behind their flight began three years earlier and more than 1,440 km away in eastern China's Jiangsu province. There, they signed up with a labor export company to work in Japan's "foreign technical intern" program, which the government insists is designed to help workers from developing countries learn advanced technical skills.