A Justice Ministry panel reviewing the controversial foreign technical intern program has released a draft proposal recommending the abolition of the current system and the establishment of a new one that recognizes the interns as workers helping Japan overcome its labor shortage.

The panel, set up in November and consisting of 15 academics, government officials and lawyers, is discussing problems with the 30-year-old program and ways to fix them. Under the present system, people from developing countries have been brought in to engage in on-the-job training in areas such as agriculture and manufacturing for up to five years.

The trainee program began in 1993 with the intention of contributing to the development of technical skills for people from developing countries. But it has been heavily criticized both in Japan and abroad, with experts saying many of the interns have been exploited as cheap sources of labor.