The reform of Japan’s oft-criticized job training program for foreign workers has failed to eliminate concerns about the human rights status of trainees.

A new law was enacted three months ago to protect the human rights of foreign nationals working under the Technical Intern Training Program, which has been criticized for rampant human rights abuse.

The law has established the Organization for Technical Intern Training as the oversight body for the program.

The watchdog certifies industry organizations to help their member companies accept foreign trainees under the program if they meet certain requirements including the development of training plans specifying compensation, working hours and other conditions.

The oversight agency also has the power to conduct on-site inspections of the member companies of these organizations applying for the program. The law provides for punishment for violations.

The labor ministry found regulatory violations at 70 percent of the some 5,600 firms that were subjected to its special guidance and supervision concerning the program in 2016, when the old system was still in place.

The violations concern a wide range of issues, from working hours, safety standards and wage payments.

The new law, which represents the government’s belated response to these problems, has not done a good job of allaying human rights concerns about the program.

One major problem with the reform is that the watchdog is grossly understaffed. It has less than 400 employees to monitor and supervise the 40,000 companies that have accepted foreign trainees under the program.

It is baffling that the government has increased the number of trainees accepted under the program while trying to enhance its oversight and related regulations to clean up the human rights record.

Foreigners are allowed to work in Japan for up to three years under the program, in principle. But the maximum period of on-the-job training has been extended to five years for companies with good records.

In addition, the scope of the program has been expanded by adding nursing to the list of eligible industries as the first vocational category involving face-to-face services.

The technical intern program, which is cast as a policy instrument for international cooperation, is actually serving as a means to tackle the increasingly serious labor shortage problem in this nation.

Since Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s second administration was inaugurated in late 2012, the program has been steadily expanded, especially to increase the number of trainees in the construction industry.

The total number of foreigners working under the program increased by 120,000 to nearly 260,000 during the four years to October last year, according to the labor ministry.

The program has become a target of frequent international criticism.

The new measures to enhance the government’s oversight over the program are likely to be seen as veiled efforts to ramp up the number of foreign trainees.

The government should not forget that its actions to improve the human rights situation concerning the program are being closely monitored to assess their effectiveness.

In one notable related policy move, the government is working on an action plan to protect human rights at workplaces.

In 2011, the United Nations announced basic principles for policy efforts to prevent business-related human rights violations, calling on countries to develop their own action plans to promote the cause.

Some 20 countries, mainly in the West, have already crafted action plans. Japan is also developing a plan under the leadership of the Foreign Ministry.

Of the various human rights issues facing Japan, nongovernment organizations and other human rights advocacy groups have singled out the trainee program as the primary target for policy efforts.

Recently, a growing number of leading Japanese companies have also been voicing concerns about the program.

Such companies are under mounting pressure to ensure legal compliance through their supply chains, including suppliers of materials and parts, outsourcing partners and corporate customers.

They are concerned about the possibility that they can come under fire even for violations at small businesses at the end of their business networks even if they cannot keep watch over them.

In developing the action plan, the government needs to pay serious attention to the voices of NGOs and companies.

The Abe administration should quicken the pace of the work with full awareness of the fact that the action plan will be a key acid test of its commitment to the cause.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Feb. 20