Editorials

Overhaul foreign trainee program

A Justice Ministry report on the Technical Intern Training Program once again shows that large numbers of the foreign trainees under the program are in fact used as cheap labor under abusive conditions such as excessively long working hours and unpaid wages. The report was released last month just ahead of the April 1 implementation of the amended immigration control law that opens the door wider to workers from overseas. In light of its findings, the government needs to fundamentally overhaul the program — supposedly meant to provide the trainees with vocational skills while working at businesses and farms in Japan for three to five years — or consider its abolition if the problems cannot be fixed.

The amendment to the immigration law marked a major turnaround in the government policy that had officially restricted foreign labor in this country to highly skilled professionals with expertise in their field. But in fact the technical interns, along with students from overseas, have provided much-needed unskilled labor to sectors that face growing difficulties securing domestic manpower. Although it was launched in 1993 as a way to support for developing countries, to which the interns bring home the job skills acquired here, the program has been expanded in recent years in response to requests from industries suffering from a lack of workers. As of the end of last year, the number of trainees under the program rose by 19 percent from a year earlier to 328,000 — more than double the figure five years earlier and accounting for 22 percent of the record 1.46 million non-Japanese workforce in this country.

The latest probe into the technical intern program, ordered by the justice minister in the process of Diet deliberations for the amended immigration law, shows that suspected labor abuse of the interns has been more serious and widespread than had earlier been revealed. It examined the cases of 5,218 trainees who were seized by authorities between January 2017 to September 2018 for overstaying their visa and other charges after disappearing from their workplaces. It is suspected that about 15 percent of them, or 759 trainees, were subjected to abusive conditions by their employers, including paying them below the legal minimum level, forcing them to work illegal levels of overtime, not paying them extra for the overtime work and deducting excessive amounts of their pay in the name of meals and other expenses. Some of the trainees were barred from going out in the evenings or had their passports seized by the employers. The fact that the government had previously known of the labor abuse and took action on only 38 of them shows how lax earlier official investigations into the problem have been.

According to the report, 171 trainees died between 2012 and 2017 — but the government had earlier been unaware of 43 of these deaths. Among the fatalities, 28 were caused by accidents while at work and 59 were the result of illnesses. Seventeen of the deaths were from suicide, including one trainee who were reportedly given only four days off over the course of 3½ months.

Many of the trainees are believed to incur heavy debts, paying a hefty amount to brokers who arrange for their arrival in Japan to take part in the program. They are believed to put up with the abusive conditions because they can’t quit until they pay off these debts. Steps need to be taken to get these brokers in the trainees’ home countries out of the picture.

While the probe covered 4,280 companies and other entities that hired the trainees, the government was unable to get answers from 383 of them as they either refused to cooperate or had gone bankrupt. It managed to obtain detailed information about the trainees’ working conditions, such as payment records and time sheets from only about 70 percent of the probe’s targets. There are suspicions that the findings of the investigation represent just a tip of the iceberg.

The problems surrounding the technical intern program were highlighted when the Diet was deliberating the immigration law amendment. Trying to prevent criticism of the program from hampering the deliberations, the government insisted that the program has been adequately managed since a law was implemented in 2017 to tighten oversight of the employers and punish them for abuse of trainees. However, the number of trainees who disappear — apparently to escape abusive conditions — has continued to grow each year. The number shot up to 9,052 in 2018, an increase of 1,963 from the previous year. The abusive conditions facing many of the trainees have apparently not been fixed — as indicated by the latest report. A fundamental overhaul of the program is long overdue.