Just as the government’s amendment to the immigration control law lifting the official ban on simple foreign labor is deliberated in the Diet, the problems in the foreign technical intern program — which is widely deemed a cover for supplying cheap foreign labor to domestic sectors facing a manpower shortage — are once again under scrutiny. The program, ostensibly intended to contribute to the economic development of the trainees’ countries by teaching them job skills to take back home, needs a fundamental review in light of its reportedly rampant abuse.

The number of non-Japanese who work at companies and farms under the Technical Intern Training Program, introduced in 1993, reached 258,000 as of October last year, or roughly 20 percent of all non-Japanese workers in this country. The program has been expanded in scope over the years to effectively deal with growing domestic manpower shortages in many sectors — most of the 14 industries that have been singled out for needing low-skilled workers from abroad under the new program have already accepted technical trainees to fill their manpower needs.

Despite their status as trainees, they are covered by Japan’s labor regulations, including work-hour rules and legal minimum wages. However, many of them are believed to work under abusive conditions. A Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry probe has identified problems such as unpaid or illegal overtime work in roughly 70 percent of the roughly 6,000 employers across the country that hired the trainees last year.

Under such conditions, the number of trainees who flee their employers has been on the rise — from about 2,000 in 2012 to more than 7,000 last year. The figure already hit 4,279 in the first half of 2018. In a Justice Ministry probe of some 2,900 trainees who disappeared from their workplaces and then were detained in violation of the immigration control law, nearly 70 percent cited low wages as their motive for disappearing — including 22 who complained of wages below the legal minimum and 144 who were paid less than agreed on in their contracts. Roughly 1,600 were paid less than ¥100,000 a month. Many others cited physical abuse at the hands of their employers or long work hours as reasons for leaving.

Opposition lawmakers who examined the probe records of individual trainees cited the examples of a Vietnamese woman who worked 130 hours a week at a sewing factory for a monthly wage of ¥90,000, a man from the Philippines who engaged in construction work 72 hours a week and was paid ¥70,000 a month, and a Chinese woman hired by a clothing manufacturer who had ¥50,000 in “lighting and heating expenses” deducted from her monthly wage of ¥60,000 to ¥100,000. The lawmakers also noted that many of the trainees incur heavy debts because they had pay brokers to come to Japan. This poses an additional financial burden on the trainees while working here.

In 2016, the government enacted legislation that penalized employers’ abuse of trainees such as seizing their passports or prohibiting them from leaving the companies’ premises, and beefing up oversight of the businesses and farms that employ the trainees. The conditions in which the trainees work, however, do not appear to have improved much.

The proposed amendment to the immigration control law marks a turnaround in the government’s official policy of not allowing people from abroad to engage in unskilled labor. It thus rectifies the situation in which domestic manpower needs in such fields have in effect been met by people whose purpose in coming to Japan is not to seek jobs — technical trainees and foreign students. But while the government seeks to create new residence statuses for non-Japanese engaging in low-skilled work, the technical trainee program is also set to be kept as it is.

People who have undergone at least three years under the technical intern program will qualify for the first category of the new visa statuses — which requires people to have a certain level of skill and experience in their fields — without taking additional tests. In fact, the government expects that 50 to 60 percent of the people granted this status in the first year of the new program will be former technical trainees. In that sense, the new foreign worker program will not be unrelated to the technical trainee program.

Japan will be competing with other countries to attract workers from overseas to make up for domestic manpower shortages. Any practices where abuse of foreign workers is suspected should be eliminated. If problems are recognized in the technical trainee program or the way it is operated, the government should be ready to rectify them.

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