The government has expanded the scope of the vocational training program for foreign workers to cover health care services. The Technical Intern Training Program, under which Japanese firms accept trainees from developing countries for the purpose of helping them acquire job skills, has been criticized as a cover to exploit cheap labor from abroad. Many cases have been reported of trainees subjected to illegally long work hours and denied proper wages. The government must step up surveillance of employers and workplace conditions to protect trainees’ rights.

The system was introduced in 1993 with the aim of transferring skills in the industrial, agricultural and fisheries sectors to developing economies. Now, as of Nov. 1, firms providing nursing care services can also accept trainees and the maximum training period has been expanded from three years to five years.

Although the participants’ status is that of vocational trainee, they have in fact become an indispensable part of the labor force amid Japan’s demographic woes. At the end of 2016, there were 229,000 trainees under the program. Vietnamese, numbering 88,000, accounted for the largest group, followed by Chinese at 81,000, Filipinos at 23,000 and Indonesians at 19,000.

The trainees face various problems. According to the labor ministry, a record 4,004 employers in the program violated labor laws in 2016, the most since 2003. Violations of work hour regulations accounted for 24 percent of the total, followed by failure to take necessary safety measures at 19 percent and unpaid overtime at 14 percent. Forty cases of malicious violation of labor laws were referred to prosecutors. Many trainees reportedly face workplace abuse and bullying, and difficulty in getting compensation for work-related injuries and illnesses. There is criticism that some are subjected to work conditions close to forced labor. The trainees are not allowed to change jobs freely even when they are dissatisfied with their employer.

The decision to include care services in the program’s coverage represents the latest in a series of steps to bring non-Japanese into the country to engage in care services. The first phase was letting Indonesians, Filipinos and Vietnamese come to Japan starting in 2008 as care-worker candidates under economic partnership agreements with these countries. If they pass government exams here, they can become certified as care workers and continue to work in the field. The second phase, introduced in September, allows foreigners who enroll in vocational schools in Japan and become certified care worker to stay here and work in that field.

Behind the expansion of the vocational training system to cover care services is the rapid aging of Japan’s population. It is estimated that in 2025, when every postwar baby boomer will have turned at least 75, 6.04 million people will be officially recognized as requiring care services, creating a shortage of 380,000 care workers. The chronic shortage of such workers is attributed to the field’s low wages despite the demanding workload. Businesses engaged in care services look forward to receiving trainees under the program. However, an association of care workers fears that the trainees’ Japanese proficiency may not be sufficient to ensure acceptable quality of services. Concern has been voiced that the expanded system will only serve as a mechanism to produce low-paid care workers.

As the system was expanded, the government set up the Organization for Technical Intern Training to beef up its monitoring of businesses hiring trainees. It also introduced penalties for acts such as violence and threats against trainees. The watchdog is empowered to check the training plans submitted by employers (which show their wages and work hours), perform on-site inspections of workplaces to examine compliance with the plans and determine whether to authorize associations of employers responsible for the procedures to accept trainees. Reported cases abound of improper conduct by employers, such as paying trainees below minimum wage and seizing their passports to prevent them from leaving — the latter of which newly became subject to punishment. The role of the watchdog is all the more important.

The tendency among employers to regard the Technical Intern Training Program as a means of securing cheap labor in the face of the manpower shortage is causing many problems. Both the government and employers must remember that the system is not intended to fill such needs but for transferring job skills to developing countries. The convenience store industry is also reportedly interested in hiring foreign trainees. But if the scope of the trainee program’s coverage is expanded even further, it will be more difficult for authorities to monitor employers’ behavior and the trainees’ working conditions. The government should think whether further expansion of the program will be consistent with its original purpose.

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