Bhutanese exchange students are being extorted by overseas employment agencies and threatened into silence, according to representatives who spoke to the press Monday on behalf of the Parent’s Committee of the Learn and Earn Program.

The exchange program gives students from Bhutan the opportunity to go to school and find a job in Japan.

More than 700 Bhutanese students have come to Japan thanks to the program, which was introduced by Bhutan’s Ministry of Labor and Human Resources. However, the alleged suicide in December 2018 of a student in the program — a 24-year-old Bhutanese man named Sonam Tobgay — exposed its many problems.

Now, many participants are saying it’s a scam and that students are being forced to repay loans by working longer hours than is legally allowed.

Bhutan Employment Overseas, or BEO, is responsible for sending the students to Japan after which they’re taken in by a Japanese agency called Support for New Departure, or SND.

BEO “gave very beautiful dreams. They have promised a lot” to the students, said Nagwang Tobgay, legal officer of the Parent’s Committee of the Learn and Earn Program. “Despite knowing everything, they misguided, misrepresented, misled our youths.”

Many of the students in the program, according to Tobgay, come from poor families and need to send money home to repay their loans, but can’t because they can barely afford life in Japan. A number of students in the program work two jobs and share rooms with five or six people so they can afford rent and tuition.

According to Yumiko Kan, a representative of an nongovernmental organization called Nature and Humans Japan, more than 20 students in the program have tuberculosis due to their immune systems having been weakened by poor living and working conditions. In many cases, Kan said, the students have been told to work beyond the legal limit of 28 hours a week in order to pay back their loans.

Tobgay traveled to Japan with Sonam Dhendup, president of the Parent’s Committee, to speak with students in the program to gauge the severity of the situation.

Both BEO and SND claim the students are doing okay, according to Kan.

“But they are not doing okay,” she said. “That’s why we are here. The Bhutanese student is having really hard times.”

According to Kan, four schools — one each in Chiba, Kobe, Osaka and Fukuoka — have taken passports from Bhutanese students who couldn’t pay tuition.

“Which is illegal,” Kan said.

The students “are in despair,” she added. “They were threatened by the agent and the Japanese language school and then even through the government. They were threatened and then that’s why they cannot speak up.”

Tobgay intends to represent a group of students seeking to file a lawsuit against Jurney Tshewang, who created the Learn and Earn Program at Bhutan’s Ministry of Labor and Human Resources.

Asked whether they will file a lawsuit against SND or the Japanese language schools who took the students’ passports, Tobgay said he doesn’t have jurisdiction in Japan. For that, they have elicited the help of Shoichi Ibuski, a Japanese lawyer known for his outspoken support of foreign laborers.

“These agencies that take in and send abroad foreign workers make a lot of money off them,” Ibuski said. “Foreign workers are becoming meals.”

Ibuski said it is possible that he will file a lawsuit against the Japanese agency SND, but that nothing is certain yet. For now, he said he would continue dialogue with the Parent’s Committee and wait for the results of their survey with the students.

During the news conference, Kan raised concern over the impending arrival of foreign workers in Japan over the next few years.

“We are talking about the Bhutanese students today but this same problem is happening for Vietnam, Myanmar, Nepal, other countries,” she said.

“There are very few officials and also NGOs to take care of foreign workers in Japan.”

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