A record 5,803 foreign trainees went missing in 2015 while working in Japan, the Justice Ministry’s Immigration Bureau said Monday, sparking concern that many may have remained in Japan as a source of black market labor.

Observers say this is another sign that the technical intern program — long criticized by rights groups at home and abroad as akin to slavery — is seriously flawed.

According to the ministry, of the 5,803 who went missing, people from China made up more than half, at 3,116. They were followed by 1,705 Vietnamese, 336 people from Myanmar, 250 Indonesians and 102 Nepalese.

The ministry says the number of disappearances has increased steadily over the last five years with an expansion of the trainee program, from 1,534 in 2011 to 2,005 in 2012 and then to 3,566 in 2013. In 2014, the figure was 4,847, with Chinese nationals topping 3,000 for the first time.

“We understand that some trainees leave their jobs in search of better wages,” Immigration Bureau official Hiroto Watahiki said. “We see the situation as grave and are taking measures to correct it.”

Even so, the government plans to further expand the trainee program as Japan’s population ages and shrinks. Last week, two bills related to foreign labor — aimed at cracking down on exploitation and rights abuses of trainees as well as expanding the program’s scope to include caregivers — passed the Lower House. Deliberations in the Upper House are set to begin this week.

Watahiki said one of the bills includes a clause that would swiftly strip AWOL trainees of their visa.

The conservative Sankei Shimbun, in an article published Monday, quoted several unnamed Chinese entrepreneurs in Japan as saying that the missing Chinese trainees are hired by businesses that serve inbound tourists from China, frequently working as underground tour guides or staff at minpaku lodgings, where private residences are rented out to short-term visitors.

Trainees have traditionally worked in industries shunned by Japanese workers, often engaging in physically demanding jobs such as construction, metal-molding or food processing. Last year, 192,000 non-Japanese arrived under the trainee program.

Ippei Torii, head of Solidarity Network with Migrants Japan, a support group for foreign workers, says the rise in disappearances simply mirrors the fact that the number of trainees itself is on the rise, and that the system continues to be exploited to provide cheap labor for Japanese companies.

“Percentage-wise, the disappearances haven’t increased much over the years,” Torii said. “We think it’s a bigger problem that many of them don’t even have the freedom to flee.”

Shoichi Ibuski, a lawyer versed in labor issues, said that instead of expanding the program, the government should scrap it and replace it with a system that recognizes the participants’ rights.

“The problem is that Japan currently has no system to accept unskilled labor from abroad, and so they are using the technical interns, foreign students and those who overstay their visas to fill the labor shortage. The situation has gotten out of control,” Ibuski said.

He added that the trainees should not be blamed for escaping a system that forces them to work in inhumane conditions.

“Their working conditions are horrendous,” he said. “Many are not even paid minimum wage, are subjected to power harassment and sexual harassment, and are forced to work excessively long hours, without holidays and even on weekends.”

It was recently learned that the labor ministry recognized the April 2014 death of a 27-year-old Filipino trainee in Gifu Prefecture as karoshi, or death by overwork.

Joey Tocnang worked at a casting company, cutting steel and applying chemicals to surfaces. He had logged up to 122.5 hours of overtime per month before dying from heart failure in the firm’s dormitory. Despite pervasive rights abuses of trainees, Tocnang’s case marked only the second time that the death of a trainee from abroad was officially recognized as karoshi.

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