• Chugoku Shimbun

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Prolonged hours of work and unpaid overtime are increasingly being forced on non-Japanese technical interns at some sewing companies in the east of Hiroshima Prefecture, an investigation by the Chugoku Shimbun has found.

Experts say the situation is only the tip of the iceberg, illustrating how the vulnerable trainees are bearing the brunt of economic fallout from a shrinking apparel market at home.

The investigation found the interns to have routinely been expected to perform more than 100 hours of overwork a month — far beyond the legally permissible limit. And, in many cases, they had been receiving hourly overtime pay worth only half the standard minimum wage.

Eastern areas of Hiroshima have traditionally thrived on textile businesses centered around indigenous cotton fabric known as Bingo-gasuri. Although much fewer in number than before, sewing factories still dot the area.

Chugoku Shimbun spoke to several female Vietnamese interns employed by three different companies in the area who recounted their experiences of being forced to work long hours and denied appropriate overtime wages.

According to three of them, who have been working at one of the firms since 2017, they were allowed to take just two days off per month on average and worked up to 150 hours of monthly overtime until their workload was reduced after orders declined due to the pandemic.

Their payment for overtime wages was split into two — official and unofficial.

In June, for example, when one of them did 127 hours and 30 minutes of overtime, it was recorded as 20 hours on paper with pay calculated as per the hourly minimum wage of ¥871, bringing her total take-home pay to about ¥125,000. The remaining overtime of more than 100 hours was then calculated at a rate of ¥450 an hour, and she was handed about ¥45,000 in an envelope.

The labor standards law places a 45-hour cap on monthly overtime, stipulating that those hours must be paid at a rate 1.25 or more times higher than usual wages — a rule that applies to foreign technical interns as well.

The Chugoku Shimbun probe found that the three companies all forced interns into nearly 100 hours of overwork each month. But on paper, they had underreported the figures significantly, as 10 to 30 hours, to avoid documenting that they had violated the law. They then paid the undocumented overtime hours at a lower rate.

In July, technical interns who worked for these three firms brought their cases to a labor union and, through them, petitioned the companies for the unpaid overtime.

When contacted by Chugoku Shimbun, the president of one of the firms admitted they had been remiss in the payment of overtime money in the past, and said they had promised two interns that they would be repaid.

The president, however, also stressed that the company no longer flouts the labor law, and that there had been an initial “verbal” agreement with the interns that their overtime would be calculated at ¥400 to ¥450 hourly.

“If we paid them duly, their illegally long hours of overwork would come to light. Those interns want to do as much overtime as possible for the sake of money. That’s why I’ve been giving them as much as I can in a backstreet sort of way,” the president said, describing the subterfuge as common in the sewing industry.

Behind the prevalence of such malpractice is the bleak outlook of the domestic garment market.

The advent of the fast fashion industry, which cranks out products at low prices, has led to an increasing number of mass-production factories moving overseas and, in turn, the scaling back of the apparel market at home. Apparel manufacturers have not raised the amount they pay the sewing companies, compounding the difficulties of conditions in the sector.

“Fewer and fewer Japanese people want to work in such an industry, leaving us to count all the more on non-Japanese interns. Unless manufacturers offer more pay for production, the vicious cycle will continue,” an industry insider said.

According to the labor ministry, of 782 textile and sartorial firms it sanctioned in 2018 over the treatment of overseas trainees, 155, or about 20 percent, were targeted for transgressions in relation to overtime, which proved to be the most widespread form of misconduct.

Five other industries that similarly employ many non-Japanese interns, such as construction and agriculture, also each logged a higher-than-average percentage of violations related to long working hours and overtime.

Chieko Kanbayashi, a Hosei University professor with extensive knowledge of the technical internship program, described the Hiroshima cases as the “tip of the iceberg” and a “structural problem inherent to the industry.”

“The coronavirus pandemic is making things even harder for the apparel industry. I’m worried that the interns will take the brunt of all this and fall victim to more of these problems,” she warned.

This monthly feature focuses on topics and issues covered by the Chugoku Shimbun, the largest newspaper in the Chugoku region. The original article was published on Aug. 8.

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