National / Media | Japan Pulse

Debate grows over the plight of foreign staff at convenience stores in Japan

by Kaori Shoji

Contributing Writer

Launched in 1993, Japan’s Technical Internship Training Program for foreign nationals hasn’t had the best reputation. The program was created to help visitors from developing nations live and work in Japan for as long as three years under the protective umbrella of Japan’s labor laws.

Two decades on, however, it’s become something of a metaphor for the country’s labor woes. Since 2015, there have been disturbing reports of abuse and scams aimed at foreign workers, triggering a move last month to modify the program and protect their rights.

In some instances, however, these modifications have actually made the lives of foreign employees worse, according to a recent report in the Asahi Shimbun. The companies hiring the workers failed to meet the new standards or even fill out the necessary paperwork, which led to foreign nationals being unable to renew their visas. Many have had no choice but to leave the country.

In an interview with the Asahi Shimbun, Lawson President Sadanobu Takemasu suggested broadening the program by adding convenience store work to its list of “technical” skills. “That way, when foreign interns return to their home country and decide to go into retail, they’ll already know how to do it,” Takemasu said. The convenience store industry is plagued by its own acute labor shortage but Takemasu denied that understaffing at his own company had anything to do with it.

In the same Asahi article, the Japan Franchise Association echoed Takemasu’s suggestion, and expressed an intention to file a request with the Ministry of Health, Welfare and Labor in January.

A step in the right direction? Not quite. Online comments exploded, with many calling the Technical Internship Training Program, to quote one commenter, “nothing but an incubator of slave labor.

The word “dorei” (“slave”) featured in close to 100 comments and it’s clear few Japanese are fooled about working conditions for foreign staff in convenience stores in Japan. More than one commenter pointed out that foreign workers are sometimes offered as little as ¥400 per hour, while Japanese employees were paid twice that amount.

Convenience stores once formed the bastion of part-time jobs for Japanese students, but are now avoided by young Japanese as the ultimate black” part-time job, with grueling graveyard shifts and countless detailed tasks that are a struggle to keep up with. Worse still, as mentioned in a Big in Japan contribution recently, is having to deal with often unreasonable complaints from Japan’s rapidly graying, increasingly cantankerous clientele.

“I would never work in a convenience store again,” one commenter wrote. “Having to deal with the dotty elderly took everything out of me. I guess it’s easier for the staff if they don’t speak much Japanese, because then they won’t have to listen to all that nonsense from the elderly.”

The unanimous opinion was that convenience stores totally sucked as a place to work, or even to operate as a manager (another can or worms entirely).

“Only the very desperate Japanese would go there to make a living,” one person wrote. “It’s impossible to subsist on convenience store wages and most of them turn into hikikomori (recluses) anyway.”

Language appears to be another bone of contention. While some online commenters said they prefer going to a convenience store manned by an all-Japanese staff (good luck finding one), others expressed guilt at being served by foreign workers, knowing that the language barrier probably affected their pay and that they were likely living in “the most miserable conditions.”

There were a plenty of comments about how terrible things had become recently.

“I can’t imagine anyone with a shred of ambition or self-respect wanting to live and work in Japan, one commenter wrote. “Don’t waste your time learning Japanese, use your resources to learn English and move to the United States!”

Others wrote that the 24-hour convenience store was on its last legs anyway.

“It’s a hotbed of misery and crime,” one commenter wrote. “The number of convenience stores should be cut by 50 percent or at least replaced by something like Amazon Go.”