National / Social Issues

Vietnam-born rights advocate Bungo Okabe steps in to stifle abuse of technical trainees in Japan

by Magdalena Osumi

Staff Writer

When it came to light in March that a Vietnamese man in Japan’s foreign trainee program was duped into performing radioactive decontamination work in areas devastated by the 2011 nuclear disaster, Bungo Okabe, 36, was the first to offer help in seeking justice.

Okabe, a Vietnamese by birth who grew up in Japan, took the 24-year-old man to a shelter he runs for trainees in Koriyama, Fukushima Prefecture, and helped him to receive unemployment insurance payments and find a new workplace to complete his three-year training program.

The man, whose name was being withheld for privacy reasons, is one of many trainees Okabe has defended since he opened the shelter in January after hearing stories of abuse and struggles from Vietnamese trainees living in his neighborhood.

“Without help they are left in limbo, as neither the government nor the organizations dispatching (trainees to Japanese firms) bother intervening to protect the rights of trainees facing problems at their workplaces,” Okabe told The Japan Times in a recent interview. “And with poor Japanese skills they keep their struggles to themselves, fearing they’ll be sent back home or that the abuse will escalate.”

The Technical Intern Training Program is designed to help people from developing countries acquire skills at Japanese firms, but it has long been criticized as being a cover for importing cheap labor as the nation suffers from rapid shrinkage of its working population.

As of June, 285,776 people were in Japan under the trainee program, according to labor ministry data. Among them Vietnamese accounted for 134,139, or about 47 percent.

According to data from various ministries, 299 legal violations related to the technical trainee system were reported last year, such as underpayment and overtime work.

“The only way to stop the abuse is to allow them to switch employers,” so that trainees can seek better working environments and to encourage employers to improve the situation,” Okabe said. But the current scheme does not allow trainees to change their jobs or employers with the exception of cases where abuse is detected by the Justice Ministry.

For such people, Okabe’s help sometimes is the last resort to continue to remain and work in the country.

The government submitted a draft revision to the immigration control law earlier this month in order to accept more foreign workers with “specified skills” in sectors suffering from severe labor shortages. But Okabe argues that revising the trainee scheme should be the priority when so many are suffering from human rights violations.

Okabe, who fled Vietnam and came to Japan at age 8 on his family’s second attempt to defect, opened the shelter in a formerly vacant house in Koriyama in January. He renovated the two-story house using about ¥1 million raised through crowdfunding, and has since taken in 15 trainees who for various reasons couldn’t stay with their employers.

He has offered them a place to sleep, food and other forms of support, including Japanese language tuition.

Okabe, whose Vietnamese name is Pham Nhat Vuong, has traveled across the country to help trainees renew their visa statuses, negotiating with immigration bureaus and municipal governments so they don’t get deported while seeking compensation or possibilities to continue training in Japan.

Currently three people are staying at the shelter and Okabe is also negotiating on behalf of trainees from across Japan for further work opportunities.

“I’ve always wanted to help underprivileged people,” said Okabe, who closed down an eatery he ran in the city to dedicate himself to supporting trainees.

One of the people Okabe has helped is Nguyen Ba Cong, 34, who came to Japan in 2015 under the foreign trainee scheme. Nguyen was supposed to do rebar work, but in fact he was assigned to do decontamination work in Namie in Fukushima for a year and half without being given sufficient information. After realizing he had been exposed to radiation working in the town — parts of which are still designated as “difficult to return” zones amid the nuclear disaster — Nguyen escaped the company where he had been assigned for training and came to the shelter.

“I’ve been played,” Nguyen told The Japan Times, taking care to choose the appropriate words to explain his situation in Japanese.

Okabe said Nguyen’s case, in which the employer violated the program’s regulations, is just the tip of the iceberg.

“I’ve assisted many abused victims, including a woman who had to abort a pregnancy,” said Okabe, adding that the woman said she had been raped by her employer.

The woman, who was 21 when the incident happened during her stay at a farm, had already returned to Vietnam without seeking justice in court as she did not want to cause trouble to her family, Okabe said.

A 22-year-old man who introduced himself as Lam said he came to the Koriyama shelter after Okabe stopped his deportation — the man called Okabe from Kansai Airport after completing boarding procedures. He was given a ticket for a flight home by his employer six months after arriving in Japan because the firm faced financial difficulties.

Lam may soon be allowed to work again, but procedures enabling trainees to switch firms last months and require cooperation by all sides involved, Okabe said.

“Many trainees contact me when they’re ordered to go back by their employers out of the blue,” he said.

A Justice Ministry official familiar with the scheme and exploitation problems agreed in a recent phone interview that the program needs improvement to protect the rights of trainees. He said, however, that switching jobs is not an option, as the government believes allowing this would be a step toward allowing economic immigrants.

He also said the government believes trainees don’t need to change jobs as they are supposed to come to gain skills in one specific field and then return home.

“What should be corrected is the employers’ notion that they’re allowed to treat trainees as cheap labor — it’s unacceptable,” the official said.

The official said he was hopeful that the introduction of new visa statuses will help curb the violations resulting from that erroneous belief.

“So far, foreigners have had to pretend they came to Japan to learn something (if their true motive is to earn money) and employers have been unable to openly accept unskilled workers,” he noted. “The new visa statuses will be more transparent and I believe this amendment should stop rogue employers from misusing the trainee system.”