SAPPORO - The government has warned companies against dismissing or unfairly treating foreign trainees who get pregnant while working in the country, officials said Thursday.
With many interns expressing concern about the impact a pregnancy may have on their employment status, with some women having been compelled to consider abortions or return home, the government on Monday told firms that accept and supervise foreign trainees that it would violate the gender equality law if the women are unfairly treated due to marriage, pregnancy or childbirth.
The government-sponsored technical internship, introduced in 1993 with a stated aim of transferring skills to developing countries, has faced criticism at home and abroad over perceptions it is used as a cover for companies to import cheap labor.
Government bodies such as the justice and labor ministries also said in a note sent to the organizations that they should not unjustly interfere in trainees’ private lives as it would be a breach of the internship program law.
The document also urged the supervising organizations that connect trainees with host institutions to inform interns about the laws.
The warning came ahead of the launch of a new visa program in Japan next month that will allow the entry of more workers from abroad to address the country’s serious labor shortages.
Those who have taken part in the existing technical intern program for more than three years will be able to obtain the new visa status to be created from April, and the government expects many interns to apply.
The Justice Ministry said it has received reports from supporters of technical interns highlighting cases in which pregnant trainees were threatened with dismissal.
Similarly, the Zentouitsu Workers Union, a Tokyo-based labor organization that assists foreign workers, said it has received numerous requests for consultations from female trainees.
“Since the scheme for foreign technical interns itself does not allow for cases of pregnancy or childbirth, trainees believe that they cannot become pregnant,” said Shiro Sasaki, the labor union’s secretary-general.
“The lack of preparation in creating the system is the reason for forced abortions and returns. The cases that have come to light are only the tip of the iceberg,” he said.
Shoichi Ibuski, a lawyer knowledgeable about problematic issues faced by foreign trainees, said the fact the government needs to remind and inform those involved that it is illegal to disadvantage and coerce pregnant interns “shows the seriousness of the issue.”
“Those who dismiss or force trainees to return home because of pregnancy must merely think that trainees are cheap labor or useful slaves,” he said. “If they cannot treat them as humans, they have no business accepting them.”
Last November, a Vietnamese woman in her 20s who arrived to train at a paper factory in western Japan, told the union that an official at a training center, a subcontractor of her supervisory organization, ordered her to either have an abortion or return to her home country.
The woman had also signed a contract with a recruiting company in Vietnam that required her to return home in the event of a pregnancy, a stipulation that is illegal in Japan.
In January, a Chinese trainee in her 20s was arrested on suspicion of abandoning her newborn baby in a residential area near Tokyo, fearing that her employers at a food processing plant would force her to return home.