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Japanese Firms Use Foreign Trainees As Cheap Labor

By: Hiroshi Matsubara

Date Posted: 2000-05-19

Thousands of foreign workers from poorer countries come to Japan every year with high hopes of improving their job skills. However, many in the government organised scheme are disappointed to find they learn nothing new and are simply put to work in menial jobs which Japanese would not do for the pay the foreigners get.

Most of them are trainees and interns at Japanese firms, having come here to receive technical training. While the Justice Ministry contends that the aim of the trainee and intern system is to “realize international contribution by effectively transferring technology, many of the foreign participants feel they came to Japan only to offset a labour shortage in difficult manual labour jobs.

“I do not feel I have been learning technical skills that will help my future career,” said a 28-year old Indonesian intern. “What I do at work is simple manual labour no different from that done by Japanese blue-collar workers.” Under the government’s Foreign Technical Trainee Program launched in 1990, daily operations of a company for one year to learn technical skills and knowledge.

In addition, the government adopted the Technical Internship Program in 1993 to allow those who had completed the one-year trainee program to work for another two years as interns at the same firm. A total of 49,757 foreign trainees came here in 1998, and the figure has grown to exceed 300,000. Many of the programs’ participants hail from China, Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines, and they work in 55 different industries, including the farming and fishing industries.

Trainees are dispatched to companies through intermediary bodies, most of which are organizations set up by Japanese industry groups. These bodies set the conditions of employment for the trainees and interns, including payment and housing. Though these organizations were set up to mediate the interests of the firms and trainees, experts claim that they usually act on behalf of the companies and not the trainees. A feeling of dissatisfaction is growing among the foreign trainees as well.

According to a survey conducted by Japan NGO Network on Indonesia, 71 percent of the over 138 Indonesian trainees and interns polled clamed they are not learning any technical skills at the firms in which they are placed. Among those who claimed they do not receive sufficient training, 32 percent said that what they do is simple manual labor which does not require any special skill and knowledge.

Sonoko Kawakami, a member of the group that conducted the survey, claimed the current foreign trainee system must be reformed to meet the needs of the trainees.“The (intermediary) bodies are usually created by firms that want trainees to alleviate their labor shortages. In this situation, firms can easily exploit trainees and not give them the payment they deserve,” she said.

Under the current system, the participants are granted trainee visas, which do not allow them to receive salaries. Instead, they receive “training allowances,” which are usually set much lower than regular workers’ wages. For instance, the Association for International Manpower Development of Medium and Small Enterprises Japan - the largest of the intermediary bodies - accepts 90 percent of the over 6,000 Indonesian trainees here and instructs its affiliated firms to pay ¥80,000 per month as a training allowance. The association was formed by an industry group representing small and medium-size firm owners.

“I do the same work as many Thai colleague who works here illegally. But he receives around ¥350,000 monthly, and I receive only ¥80,000,” said an Indonesian trainee. “We trainees are like slaves who are bound to work without sufficient payment in exchange for legitimate status here”.

To ensure the trainee program runs smoothly, the government entrusts the Japan International Training Cooperation Organization, a semi –governmental foundation, to monitor the intermediary bodies. But the foundation has no power to penalize them.

Despite the plight of foreign trainees and interns, the foundation has issued advisories to intermediary bodies to improve the treatment of trainees and interns only around 10 times in the past nine years. Labor Ministry officials say local Labor Standards Offices can do nothing for foreign trainees because the Labor Standards Law does not apply to them.

Trainees can petition the Justice Ministry’s Immigration Bureau if they do not receive any training at their firms. But the ministry can only penalize the firms by suspending their permission to accept trainees, which results in the trainees’ immediate deportation.

In the case of foreign interns, local Labor Standards Offices can deal with problems involving interns if their working conditions violate the Labor Standards Law. The interns, however, generally have limited knowledge of the law and rarely bring their grievances to the offices.

Having almost no institutional support for their interests, foreign trainees and interns are sometimes severely exploited.

In 1988, two executives of the Fresh Food Logistics Association an intermediary body in Choshi, Chiba Prefecture, were arrested on suspicion of stealing more than ¥80,000 per month from 230 Chinese interns in the fishing industry.

Last year, a textile industry intermediary organization in Takeo, Fukui Prefecture, was found to have swindled a large part of its payments to Chinese interns, paying them only ¥10,000 per month. Physical abuse of female interns also surfaced at the organization.Kawakami said these should not be dismissed as rare instances and warned similar cases can happen at any time under the current system.

“The current system is one that benefits Japanese firms, which have been hurt by a labor shortage, under the mask of international contribution, Kawakami said. She said that a law should be created to grant foreign interns and trainees the same working status as that of domestic workers and to penalize firms or intermediary bodies that abuse trainees and interns. She also said that a public organization should be established to supervise training conditions, payment and the living environments of trainees and interns. The organization should also have the authority to punish firms that violate the law.

In the second Basic Plan for immigration Control released last month, the Justice Ministry’s Immigration Bureau now admits the need to further improve the training system so that trainees and interns receive “more meaningful” training.

According to ministry officials, the ministry is also considering providing a clear residence and working status for foreign interns, while giving more authority to JITCO so that it can strictly supervise intermediary bodies. However, experts question the foundation of the system itself, denouncing it as merely a system to exploit foreigners without giving them appropriate working status.

Satoshi Murata, a lawyer who has long taken up issues involving foreign workers here, called the trainee and intern system one that exploits the foreign workforce by taking advantage of the economic gap between Japan and countries that send trainees.“no matter how poor their countries are,, as long as they are here, they must have the same human rights as Japanese people,” he said. “The trainee system, which allows discriminative treatment of foreigners under the name of international cooperation, brings shame to this country.”

Hiroshi Tanaka, professor of sociology at Hitotsubashi University, said the system is merely a disguise to import foreign workers to Japan without violating the principle that restricts importing simple labor from overseas.

“The government must first admit that the country already heavily relies on foreign workers, “ he said. “Then it must develop the system to open the door to foreign workers, while securing their human rights.”

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