A Lower House committee passed a bill Friday intended to shake up a state-sponsored foreign traineeship program slammed by critics as akin to modern slavery.
The move represents a turning point for the Technical Intern Training Program (TITP), which has for years been synonymous with a gamut of human rights violations against trainees, including overwork, underpayment, sexual harassment and passport confiscation.
However, questions remain over the efficacy of the bill, which some have called merely cosmetic.
While it has been touted as a part of Japan’s “international contribution” to increasing industrial expertise in developing countries, the program, critics say, has effectively been used by the government as an unofficial source of cheap, foreign labor to mitigate the impact of the nation’s diminishing workforce.
The bill features a raft of new measures the Justice Ministry says are meant to “straighten out” the program.
It outlaws employers from forcing interns to work through measures such as violence, intimidation and confinement, and subjects employers responsible for those acts to a maximum sentence of 10 years or a fine of up to ¥3 million. It also obliges business groups and industry associations to obtain a permit from the government to accept foreign interns.
Under the envisaged law, a new oversight body will also be created with the aim of undertaking an on-site probe into working conditions of the interns.
The bill also calls for extending the maximum tenure of their apprenticeship from three years to five years, provided employers observe the highest labor standards.
The bill will be further deliberated at plenary sessions in both chambers of the Diet. Media reports say it is expected to clear the ongoing extraordinary Diet session, which wraps up on Nov. 30.
The passage of the bill by the Lower House committee on judicial affairs comes in the wake of a recent revelation that a 27-year-old Filipino intern in the program died of karoshi (overwork) in April 2014. The intern, Joey Tocnang, died of heart failure after clocking up to 122.5 hours of overtime per month.
“This is a very gut-wrenching case. This clearly shows he was being enslaved,” lawmaker Kimie Hatano, of the Japanese Communist Party, told the committee as she lashed out at the program.
In response, Justice Minister Katsutoshi Kaneda said he was “pained” to learn of the tragedy and vowed to “strengthen management” of organizations that accept the interns to further legitimize the program.
Critics, however, have said the proposed reform would be far from effective in stamping out instances of malpractice that are rife in the program.
Lawyer Shoichi Ibusuki, who has long handled cases involving foreign interns, pointed out the bill did not address the fact that trainees are denied the discretion to change their workplaces “no matter how much they are abused or underpaid.”
He said legislators also remained oblivious to the presence of “supervising organizations” who accept the interns from abroad and then dispatch them to companies at home.
It is such intermediary organizations that are contributing to the problem of labor exploitation, Ibusuki said, as they often acquiesce to — or in some cases even actively dictate — the rock-bottom wages interns are paid by their employers.
JCP lawmaker Hatano said fundamental problems will remain unaddressed, with interns forced to continue to endure “subordination” to their bosses.
“The bill only slightly strengthened regulation as a cover-up of its real purpose, which is to expand the whole program,” lawyer Ibusuki said, referring to the expected extension of the internship time frame that he said was a not-so-veiled attempt to alleviate the nation’s labor shortage.
In addition, the state is expected to tuck nursing care onto a list of about 70 learnable professions under the program once the bill is enacted, according to the Justice Ministry.
Observers fear that such a foreign influx into the nursing industry may lead to a decline in quality care depending on the how proficient the interns are in Japanese. Communication failures could jeopardize the safety of patients, they say.
“Expansion is all the bill is about,” Ibusuki said.
In a related move, the Lower House committee also passed an amendment to the current immigration law seeking to establish a new visa status for foreign caregivers.
The visa, which targets exchange students who study nursing care in colleges or vocational schools, essentially enables them to continue to stay and work as caregivers in Japan after graduation. The new status is good for a maximum five years and renewable, thus giving caregivers the potential for settlement.
Behind the government’s drive to lure foreign caregivers is the chronically high turnover and human resource shortage plaguing the low-paid nursing industry. The labor ministry estimates the industry will have a shortfall of 380,000 jobs by 2025.
Japan currently accepts foreign nurses in a bilateral economic partnership agreement (EPA) with countries such as the Philippines, Indonesia and Vietnam.