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Student's death reveals dark side of Bhutan-Japan exchange program

Suicide in Fukuoka triggers wave of fraud and exploitation claims against Learn and Earn and immigration broker BEO

by Ryusei Takahashi

Staff Writer

A year has passed since the lifeless body of a Bhutanese exchange student was discovered hanging from a tree in a public park in Fukuoka.

Sonam Tobgay, 24, was a student in the Learn and Earn Program, an exchange program created by the Bhutanese labor ministry in 2017. Its purpose — as the name implies — was to enroll and employ Bhutanese youth in schools and businesses across Japan.

More than 700 students joined the program to attend school and then find jobs in Japan. But what Tobgay really wanted, according to his family, was to send money back home to his wife and 3-year-old daughter. He had been studying Japanese at a language school in Fukuoka and working in a nearby factory before his body was found in December 2018.

Why Tobgay took his own life remains unknown, but his death inspired hundreds of students to come forward with stories of fraud and hardship that would, over the course of a year, slowly uncover what appears to be a duplicitous scheme to exploit foreign-exchange students for money.

Students claim Bhutan Employment Overseas — a Bhutanese immigration broker that acted as a recruiter and intermediary for the program — lied about job opportunities and burdened students with enormous debt before sending them to Japan.

Upon arrival, students were met with a hard life. On most days, they went straight from class to a part-time job. In some cases, they worked up to 40 hours a week — far exceeding the 28-hour legal limit for foreign students — after which they went home to rooms shared by dozens in hazardous conditions thought to have caused the spread of infectious diseases.

In July, Bhutanese law enforcement arrested the operators of BEO for alleged corruption and forgery of documents.

The Learn and Earn Program was supposed to be a win-win situation for both countries: Bhutan is struggling to provide jobs for its youth, and Japan is staring down a labor shortage brought on by depopulation.

The program had the potential to alleviate problems in both countries. Instead, the scandal has become yet another example of exploitation and abuse as Japan continues to court foreign labor. Critics say loopholes in the country’s immigration policy are allowing rogue actors like BEO to take advantage of the system.

Selling a dream

In February, concerned parents in Bhutan formed a committee and sent representatives to Japan to meet students and conduct a survey of their experiences. After speaking to more than 600 students, the committee found that 95 percent of respondents were dealing with “serious issues” mostly related to debt, work and living conditions.

The committee’s findings conflicted with a separate survey carried out by the Bhutanese labor ministry in April, which asserted that more than 80 percent of students were “doing well” with “no serious complaints or issues to speak of.”

In August, the director-general of the Bhutanese labor ministry was charged with four offenses, including the illegal issuance of a certificate of registration to BEO without required documentation.

In the case against BEO, charges of harassment, abandonment of a person in danger and human trafficking were ruled out by the Royal Bhutan Police due to a lack of criminal elements. However, on top of charges related to misconduct and the forgery of bank statements and public documents, additional charges have emerged including larceny by deception and aiding and abetting forgery.

Students say the broker demanded exorbitant fees and payments — some of which were illegal — totaling up to $1,800 per individual. Across more than 700 students, the agency accrued hundreds of thousands of dollars. In addition, the agency allegedly made loan payments on behalf of students with forged documents in an attempt to turn a profit and sway the results of visa applications.

“This Learn and Earn Program is human trafficking,” said a 28-year-old male student in the program who spoke to The Japan Times under the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution. “This is business between two illegal organizations. The trade of students between two illegal organizations.”

Sonam Dhendup (center) of the Parent's Committee of the Learn and Earn Program, speaks at a February news conference at the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Japan in Tokyo, while fellow member Nagwang Tobgay (right) and Yumiko Kan of Nature and Humans Japan look on. | RYUSEI TAKAHASHI
Sonam Dhendup (center) of the Parent’s Committee of the Learn and Earn Program, speaks at a February news conference at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan in Tokyo, while fellow member Nagwang Tobgay (right) and Yumiko Kan of Nature and Humans Japan look on. | RYUSEI TAKAHASHI

The student described a bleak stretch of time shortly after moving to Japan in 2017 in which he worked more than 40 hours a week at a food-processing plant and shared a room with 10 others in a house occupied by 24 people, all while attending school regularly.

It is illegal for exchange students to work more than 28 hours a week. Many students say they exceeded that limit, working mostly at night while attending classes during the day.

“Morning classes, night work, few hours of sleep. We didn’t know how to speak Japanese,” the student said. “Whatever (BEO) promised us, they were not able to deliver.”

The student has since obtained a working visa and a full-time job in Japan, but he still has more than $12,000 in debt accrued during his time in the program.

Most of the students come from impoverished homes. To pay for tuition, living expenses and send money home, they had no choice but to share a room or find a part-time job, if not multiple jobs. Overcrowded housing, poor working conditions and low socioeconomic status make immigrants especially vulnerable to disease. This is compounded by social barriers like language, weak legal status and low income that make it difficult to find treatment.

At least 21 students in the program contracted tuberculosis, five of whom were hospitalized, according to local reports. One student in Kobe — Sonam Tamang, 27 — has been in a coma since September 2018 after suffering severe brain damage from tuberculosis in her central nervous system. She remains hospitalized in Japan and recovery is unlikely.

“These students were sold a dream,” said Yumiko Kan of the nongovernmental organization Nature and Humans Japan. Kan has been providing legal support to students in the program.

Students told her BEO promised them high-paying jobs. Instead, many of them fell into low-paying, often illegal lines of work where they were subjected to outlandish intimidation tactics and developed health issues possibly brought on by strenuous labor and unsafe living conditions, Kan said.

In the early stages, students said BEO agents showed them slideshow presentations with “pretty pictures” of skyscrapers and videos of busy workers in Japan to demonstrate the country’s prosperity.

“These students were basically brainwashed,” Kan said. “They were told repeatedly that Japan is a place where it’s easy to get into a good college, build a career and become rich.”

In one incident, Kan said a teacher at a Japanese-language school illegally seized a student’s passport because the student couldn’t afford the tuition. In another, a student who couldn’t pay tuition was driven by school administrators to an airport and forcefully put on a return flight to Bhutan.

Students were apparently afraid to speak out because of what Kan referred to as “spies,” or students who would listen to conversations or take screenshots of group messages and send the information to BEO in exchange for scholarships, discounted tuition or preferential treatment for acquiring or renewing visas. Students say they were also pressured by BEO and Bhutanese labor ministry staffers to avoid complaining or airing their grievances on social media, and urged to post positive things about the program instead.

The bigger picture

Sonam Tobgay | COURTESY OF YUMIKO KAN
Sonam Tobgay | COURTESY OF YUMIKO KAN

In Bhutan, Tobgay’s death and the subsequent fallout from Learn and Earn sparked a nationwide scandal. Japanese media first picked up the story after his death in December 2018, then again in February when representatives of the parents’ committee spoke at a news conference in Tokyo. Multiple attempts have been made since then to contact BEO and the Bhutanese labor ministry for comment.

Eriko Suzuki, a professor at Kokushikan University and vice chair of nonprofit group Solidarity Network with Migrants Japan, said that while it is tempting to blame everything on BEO, it is necessary to look at the bigger picture instead and question why the broker was able to exploit students in the first place.

She argued that the lack of robust immigration policy in Japan is what allowed BEO to exploit hundreds of exchange students, and said the problems would continue until a “front door” is established and people no longer have to rely on private immigration brokers or other backdoor channels to enter the country.

“Focusing our anger on one person or organization might be good from a media perspective, but that won’t prevent this from happening again,” Suzuki said.

At least in terms of numbers, Japan has already achieved its goal to take in 300,000 foreign students by 2020.

Despite what happened in the Learn and Earn Program — as well as numerous reports about exchange students, technical interns and other foreign laborers being exploited for cheap labor or profit — Japan is moving forward with a plan to recruit more workers from abroad.

In April, a new law took effect that paved the way for some 345,000 laborers with specific skills to enter Japan over the next five years. Critics say the law is about procuring labor — not establishing the groundwork for immigration policy — which might explain why this new wave of workers can’t bring their families to Japan and view permanent residency as a pipe dream.

As Japan’s population continues to shrink and age, experts say it won’t overcome the growing labor shortage without improving legal protection for foreign workers. Suzuki believes Japan won’t attract enough foreign labor to maintain its economy if the abuse and exploitation continues.

“The root of the problem lies in the institutions of the Japanese government that, by failing to provide protection for immigrants, inadvertently provided these broker agencies with the space to exist,” she said. “Without understanding that, the problem will never be completely eradicated.”

The silver lining

In the meantime, students have taken matters into their own hands.

In September, former students in the Learn and Earn Program established the International Labor Union of Bhutan. Said to be the first of its kind, ILUB aims to avoid repeating what happened with BEO by providing Bhutanese immigrants with job guidance, legal assistance and the knowledge they need to build a life in Japan.

“We have to protect these students,” said Jaganath Koirala, president of ILUB and a former participant in the Learn and Earn Program. “We can provide a support system so they’re not exploited, lied to or deceived. The idea is to stop Bhutanese youth from being victimized by brokers.”

The program has been suspended but around 250 of the students still study and work in Japan. They would go home if wages in Bhutan weren’t so low, Koirala said.

The ILUB intends to open a branch of the union in Bhutan and eventually create a labor supply business in Japan to eliminate the need for brokers and other intermediaries.

As membership grows, the union hopes to support Bhutanese immigrants looking to make a life in Japan by helping them with visa applications and matching them with companies looking for foreign workers. He remains cautiously optimistic.

“There are many things we can learn from Japan. It’s a very good destination for Bhutanese young people but, before they come, they need the right information and knowledge so they don’t face the problems that happened in the Learn and Earn Program,” he said. “This should never happen again.”