Photo/IllutrationForeign technical intern trainees attend a hearing held by opposition parties in the Diet on Nov. 8 to discuss issues they face. (Takeshi Iwashita)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

As Japan moves to expand acceptance of overseas workers, technical intern trainees voiced their plight in the Diet, describing being bullied, paid extremely low wages and suffering accidents on the job.

Eighteen trainees attended a Nov. 8 hearing to give Diet members a better understanding of the realities workers face under the Technical Intern Training Program system, with five of them speaking about their experiences.

A Chinese woman in her 30s who had worked at a paper processing company in Shizuoka Prefecture said she faced abusive treatment that drove her to try to end her life.

"I attempted suicide by jumping from the building of the company I worked at because I became the target of power harassment and bullying, and I was not given a chance to transfer to a different section," she said.

Another Chinese woman, in her 50s, who had worked at a sewing factory in Gifu Prefecture, told legislators that she was paid just 300 yen ($2.63) an hour, less than half the prefecture's minimum wage, toiling from 8 a.m. to midnight.

The hearing comes as the government looks to introduce a new so-called No. 1 visa status for foreign workers with specific skills in April, though opposition lawmakers argue that problems with the current system need to be addressed first. The hearing was organized by opposition parties.

As of the end of October last year, there were 257,000 foreign technical trainees working in Japan. While the current system only allows them to stay in Japan for up to five years, the proposed revisions to the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Law would allow them to remain for up to 10 years.

Under the newly proposed residence status of "specified skills," foreign nationals deemed to have sufficient abilities and adequate Japanese language skills would be granted one of the sub-category visas now referred to as No. 1 status.

Foreign nationals who have been in Japan already for at least three years as technical intern trainees would be allowed to switch to the new No. 1 status under the proposal.

However, opposition parties are calling on the government to review what they say is the trouble-ridden training program system before introducing the new residence status, with concerns that it would produce similar problems as those reported under the training program.

To dispel such concerns, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said at the Upper House Budget Committee on Nov. 7, "We will ensure that foreign workers are paid salaries comparable to those of their Japanese counterparts under the new residence status system."

Echoing Abe's view, Justice Minister Takashi Yamashita said, "We will design a new system based on lessons learned from the training program."

The revision bill of the immigration control law includes a provision that obliges employers to pay foreign workers under the specified skills residence status "salaries at least comparable to those of Japanese workers," though the same provision exists for the rule governing technical intern trainees.

Akira Hatate, a senior official at the Japan Civil Liberties Union well-versed in the trainee program, said the proposed system could just be a repeat of the trainee program under which interns are forced to work for far below minimum wage.

“Salaries should be specified, otherwise they will not go beyond minimum wage,” he said.

The government started the intern trainee program in 1993, touting it as an opportunity for foreign nationals from developing countries to enhance skills in specific sectors in Japan and bring them back to their home country.

However, the system has long been criticized for allowing certain employers to exploit the foreign workers as cheap labor to fill severe labor shortages in such sectors as agriculture, fisheries and manufacturing.

In response to reports of troubles related to work conditions for foreign trainees, provisions were incorporated to penalize employers that violated their human rights and to strengthen oversight through a law that took effect in November of last year. However, it became apparent that problems persisted.

At a Nov. 1 Lower House Budget Committee session, Yamashita revealed that a record 4,279 trainees fled their workplaces in the first half of this year, up 1,074 from the previous year during the same period.

Experts have argued having entities accept foreign trainees and assign them to individual employers does not prevent violations of their human rights by the employer.

The proposal envisions that registered private groups will provide assistance to foreign workers entering Japan under the No. 1 status. However, experts fear that simply entrusting them with such a task would not be sufficient to prevent further victims of exploitation.

Ichiro Natsume of the Labor Lawyers Association of Japan blasted the government for hastening to introduce the new visa system, saying, "There is no doubt that problems involving foreign workers will only expand.”