The Justice Ministry is investigating a case involving a Vietnamese man brought to Japan under the government’s foreign trainee program who alleges he was duped into taking part in cleanup work in areas devastated by the 2011 nuclear disaster, authorities said Wednesday.
The ministry confirmed by telephone that the officials have been looking into the case of the 24-year-old man who worked for an Iwate Prefecture-based construction firm. The company wasn’t available for comment as of Wednesday.
On Tuesday, the Nikkei daily reported the firm has denied claims that it violated labor laws. In the report, the firm asserted instead that the man, who requested anonymity through the union, was assigned the same duties as his Japanese coworkers, which didn’t pose any threat to workers’ health.
But according to the Tokyo-based Zentoitsu Workers Union, which represents the man, he was supposed to conduct dismantling and public engineering work, but was instead assigned with cleanup work in contaminated areas in Fukushima Prefecture, exposing him to radiation.
The group’s Secretary-General Shiro Sasaki, who is well-versed on trainee issues and familiar with the case, said the 24-year-old came to Japan in September 2015 after signing a contract with the firm.
He was then sent to Koriyama in Fukushima Prefecture more than a dozen times to decontaminate the city’s residential areas between October 2015 and March 2016.
Afterwards, he was engaged in dismantling buildings in an exclusion zone in the Fukushima town of Kawamata before the authorities lifted restrictions on the evacuation zone due to high levels of radiation.
The man claims he was not informed he would be cleaning up areas contaminated after the Fukushima nuclear disaster.
“(The man’s claims) suggest that he might have been deceived and brought to Japan to conduct cleanup work,” Sasaki said.
Sasaki said the man’s employer might have abused the Labor Contract Act, Labor Standard Act and Industrial Safety and Health Act.
Sasaki said the union is assisting in the ongoing negotiations between the Vietnamese man and the construction firm and are seeking compensation worth the amount he would have been paid if he had completed the rest of his three-year contract.
According to Sasaki, the man was receiving a monthly wage of about ¥140,000, while Japanese workers conducting similar cleanup work earn nearly three times as much.
The government-backed Technical Intern Trainee Program was designed to support foreign nationals in their acquisition of technical skills but in reality has been exploited to make up for the shortage of unskilled laborers in Japan.
“(Technical trainees) shouldn’t be forced to conduct such work … which may pose a threat to one’s health; it’s undeniable that radiation may be hazardous,” Sasaki said.
The Vietnamese quit the company last November out of concern for his health after it ignored his requests to have the situation explained.
The Japan Times was able to access records showing the man had been exposed to radiation while working in Kawamata. According to the labor union, the employer hid this information from him.
Sasaki said the employer also denied the man allowances given to those working under hazardous conditions.
“Above all, decontamination work is very dangerous and requires the trainee’s consent,” said Shoichi Ibuski, a lawyer versed on labor issues, who supports foreign trainees and interns. “It’s not the type of work you engage someone in who is not aware of accompanying risks. It’s more of a humanitarian rather than a legal issue.”
Ibuski stressed the Vietnamese man’s case shows flaws in the system, which is aimed at helping foreign nationals from developing countries gain skills they could use back home.
Companies accepting foreign workers under the trainee system are required to submit a detailed plan of their training to a Justice Ministry body tasked with overseeing the program. Ibuski speculated the trainee’s employer might have kept the scope of the man’s duties hidden when submitting the documents to the government.
Asked to comment on the Vietnamese man’s case, an official said the ministry was verifying the information it had obtained, including claims the trainee’s duties differed from work described in the contract.
The official said there was a possibility the employer had violated labor laws and if the abuse is proven, the ministry would consider penalties. The law, under which violation of the trainees’ rights is subject for punishment, went into effect last November.
The official explained that labor laws do not forbid employment of foreign nationals at decontamination work sites and in theory employers accepting foreign technical trainees may have them conduct cleanup work at contaminated sites. But the official said that a vocational training program needs to be aligned with the objective of the training system.
“It’s hard to imagine that a trainee could use decontamination work experience in his or her home country,” he said, indicating that such a program would likely not be authorized by the government.