Photo/IllutrationForeign technical trainees speak about their experiences at a hearing held by opposition parties in the Diet on Nov. 13. (Shogo Koshida)

More than half of foreign trainees who fled companies they worked for in Japan were paid just 100,000 yen ($888) a month, with many having already coughed up exorbitant fees to agencies back home, according to a Justice Ministry survey.

The ministry shared the findings of its hearing investigation into the experiences of 2,870 former foreign technical trainees with the Lower House Judicial Affairs Committee on Nov. 19.

The probe covered foreign trainees who were rounded up on suspicion of illegally overstaying in Japan and forced to leave by December 2017.

Asked why they escaped, 1,929 trainees, or about 67 percent, said "low wages." Of these, 144 cited being paid lower than what their contracts stated, while 22 cited wages that were lower than minimum wage.

In response to the same question, for which multiple answers were allowed, 510 trainees said they fled because they "wanted to work after the program was finished." Another 362 trainees said, "supervision was too strict," 203 said "working hours were long," and 142 said they "were physically abused."

The survey comes ahead of a proposed revision to the immigration law to accept more foreign workers into Japan and sheds light on their exploitation as cheap labor despite the program being touted as a measure for "international contributions."

Regarding monthly wages, 1,627 of the surveyed trainees, or more than half, said they earned "100,000 yen or less," while 1,037 said they earned “between 100,000 and 150,000 yen.”

A total of 2,131 trainees said that they had been told about their wages before arriving in Japan.

Most of the trainees had paid organizations in their home countries to send them to Japan, with 1,100 of them, the highest, paying "between 1 million and 1.5 million yen," and 293 paying “more than 1.5 million yen.” A total of 2,552 trainees borrowed money to pay such fees, while 459 used their own funds.

The Japanese government plans to revise the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Law to create a new “specific skills” visa in the spring for foreign workers in 14 industry sectors facing labor shortages. A maximum of 350,000 foreigners are expected to fall under the new status over five years from fiscal 2019 starting from April.

While the number varies among industries, about 50 percent of the 350,000 foreign workers will be those changing status from the foreign technical trainee program.

As part of efforts to ensure the fair treatment of trainees, the government implemented the Technical Intern Training Law in autumn 2017, enhancing supervision of companies that accept them.

However, during the first half of 2018, a record 4,279 trainees fled from their jobs, leading to doubts about the effectiveness of the measure. Opposition parties will continue in the Diet to press for changes to the system amid ongoing problems.

“All trainees should be heard in the investigation--not only those who fled--and it should lead to improving the program," said Yoshihito Kawakami, a lawyer familiar with the foreign trainee program. “Brokers who impose huge amounts of guarantee money and fees on trainees should be eliminated from the program."

(This article was written by Naoki Urano and Osamu Uchiyama.)