National | FINDING COMMON GROUND

Abuses still abound in labor-strapped Japan’s foreign ‘trainee’ worker system

by Magdalena Osumi

Staff Writer

Nan, a 28-year-old woman from a village in the Magway region of Myanmar, came to Japan in November 2016 under the government-backed Technical Intern Trainee Program to work at an Aichi Prefecture sewing factory.

She hoped to hone her sewing skills and earn money for her family back home by working at a Japanese company — a promise she soon found miserably broken.

She started working for now-defunct Sugiyama Hosei in January. She was assigned to produce car seat covers, not sewing clothes as she was told by an agent in Myanmar before she came to Japan.

Nan worked at least eight hours a day, six days a week, for five months. But she received just ¥339,000 in total — or only ¥67,800 per month — far lower than the legally set minimum wage level, an apparent violation of the Labor Standards Law.

Nan is among numerous immigrant workers who have fallen prey to labor-strapped Japanese firms that exploit the notorious intern vocational “trainee” system.

“At first when I came (to Japan), I regretted it. I felt deceived,” Nan told The Japan Times through a translator in a recent interview. She agreed to disclose only the first part of her name.

Nan was not given even a copy of her work contract, making it hard to claim her labor rights, she said.

Sugiyama Hosei reportedly went bankrupt in June. The Japan Times sent a letter of questions and made a phone call to the office used by Sugiyama Hosei but received no response by the deadline for this article.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has officially declared that his administration will never adopt “an immigration policy” to make up for the continuing acute labor shortage despite Japan’s rapidly shrinking working population (people aged 15 to 64).

But it’s a fact that Abe’s Cabinet has kept introducing numerous unskilled workers from other Asian countries by providing them with the “technical trainee” visa status, experts point out.

“Trainees” are not allowed to change their job or employer even if they find their work situation is not what they were promised. This is considered one of the reasons many trainees like Nan have no choice but to keep working under harsh conditions.

In 2016, the Labor Standards Inspection Office inspected 5,672 workplaces hiring foreign “trainees” across the country. The office then found that 70.6 percent of them, or 4,004, were violating labor laws and related ordinances, including those governing work hour limits, safety measures and wage payments.

Nobuya Takai, a lawyer who has foreign trainees from Vietnam, Myanmar and China among his clients, said many apparel firms in Gifu and Aichi prefectures are struggling under a severe labor shortage.

“Japanese workers won’t come because the wages are too low” in apparel factories there, Takai said.

He added that many trainees in those areas have said they have not been paid their due wages.

“How can we make firms accepting technical trainees, Japanese supervising agencies and dispatching groups (outside Japan) abide by the labor laws? That’s a major concern,” said Chieko Kamibayashi, a social science professor at Tokyo’s Hosei University.

The precursor of the trainee system was created in the 1980s. The trainee system was formally created in 1990 with a revision of the immigration control law. This was a time that Japan was suffering from a severe labor shortage amid the overheated “bubble” economy.

In recent years Japan has again faced an acute labor shortage, partly because the working population is rapidly shrinking due to the long-continuing low birthrate.

The number of foreign trainees in Japan meanwhile has jumped 57 percent to 251,721 as of last June from 143,308 in 2011, according to figures compiled by the Justice Ministry.

Kamibayashi said that so far firms and organizations both in and out of Japan involved in dispatching trainees have benefited from the apparent lack of a powerful organ that can intervene when trainees’ rights are abused.

“Brokers choose people with less education who often don’t have a clear notion of what’s right and wrong so they don’t complain about mistreatment,” she said.

Facing strong public criticism of the trainee system, the government last year set up the Organization for Technical Intern Training, a watchdog that is supposed to supervise firms hiring foreign trainees.

Under a revised law that took effect Nov. 1, the OTIT will appoint inspectors to verify employers’ and supervising groups’ practices. They are tasked with conducting inspections at least once a year.

But the OTIT doesn’t have enough inspectors, and staff should be increased considerably if it’s going to improve work conditions for a significant number of trainees, Kamibayashi said.

Other experts argue that Japan should introduce a system to give proper working visas to unskilled foreign workers, not the “trainee” visa status that is often abused by Japanese employers.

Oh Hak-soo, an assistant research director at the Tokyo-based Japan Institute for Labor Policy and Training, suggests Japan should introduce a labor program similar to the one in South Korea.

In 1993, South Korea introduced a “trainee” scheme modeled on the Japanese system. Seoul eventually abolished the system after struggling daily with violations of labor laws and trainees’ rights abuses, according to Oh, who studies the South Korean labor system. South Korea launched a new system in 2004 to introduce nonprofessional foreign workers.

The key difference is that the governments of the host and dispatching countries directly manage the foreign workers.

This contrasts with the Japanese scheme under which private sector organizations serve as go-betweens and can largely dictate labor conditions.

Oh said the South Korean government covers most of the expenses.

“This system benefits the businesses struggling with a labor shortage and foreigners seeking job opportunities,” Oh said.

According to Oh, 32.2 percent of foreign workers using the South Korean system in 2016 earned between ¥200,000 and ¥300,000 a month, much higher than average of ¥130,000 for “trainee” workers in Japan.

Last year, 276,042 foreign nationals worked in South Korea under the system.

Oh stressed that Japanese businesses accepting trainees to alleviate their labor shortage don’t guarantee trainee rights equal to those given to their Japanese counterparts.

He pointed out that the Japanese system doesn’t allow trainees to change their job in Japan even if actual working conditions are different from those written in their contracts.

This is the second in a four-part New Year’s series examining Japan’s immigration policy as the nation struggles with a shortage of workers and an aging population.