Photo/IllutrationThe Asahi Shimbun

Sixty-five groups that refer foreign technical trainees to businesses donated 31 million yen ($281,680) to 68 lawmakers over a three-year period, payments that experts say could lead to corruption in an already problematic program.

The donations through 2018 were confirmed in an Asahi Shimbun survey that examined 3,212 trainee support groups listed by the Justice Ministry by the end of November, or their chiefs.

The broker groups say the donations allow them to quickly gain information about possible changes in the technical trainee system and to more swiftly complete administrative procedures.

The trainee program came under fire after companies were found to be forcing the foreign interns to work long hours for unreasonably low wages, among other violations.

And at least one politician was forced to resign in a scandal involving a staffing service company connected to foreign workers.

OBTAIN INFORMATION ON PROGRAM

An organization that deals in foreign trainees in Hiroshima donated 860,000 yen to a Liberal Democratic Party branch headed by a local lawmaker between 2016 and 2018.

“It (the donations) will have great significance to promptly obtain accurate information” about the constantly changing program, a member of the organization said.

The technical intern program started in 1993 and now covers more business fields in which trainees can work. Legislation was introduced in 2016 to resolve the many problems with the program, including the abuses of the foreign interns.

Before the Diet passed that bill, the Hiroshima group contacted the lawmaker’s office to check on developments concerning the legislation.

“The timing of the enactment of the new law could affect our business plan,” a representative of the organization said.

The head of a foreign trainee supervising organization in Hokkaido said he sent 10,000 yen to an LDP branch led by local lawmaker just before the Lower House election in 2017. It was his first such donation.

“Local governments’ responses could drastically change when we have connections with politicians,” the man said.

His group accepted technical interns from China and Vietnam to help address the severe labor shortages in agriculture and dairy farming. They were allowed to work in Japan for up to five years.

A legal revision was made in 2018 to usher in the “specified skills” visa system, which covers 14 industry areas, such as construction, nursing care and agriculture. Technical trainees could stay in the nation for an additional five years if they switched to the new visa.

The leader of the Hokkaido organization, which is registered as a group to offer life support for workers on the specified skills visa, said procedures are much more difficult under the newly introduced visa program.

“The presence of lawmakers is essential for us to relay the challenges we face,” he said.

MOST DONATIONS TARGETING RULING LAWMAKERS

Around 93 percent of the recipients of the donations were politicians from the LDP and its junior coalition partner, Komeito, according to the survey.

Hiroshi Ueno, an LDP Lower House member, resigned as parliamentary vice health minister after a scandal surfaced in August. He reportedly sought payments from a staffing service company for his efforts in demanding the Justice Ministry issue visa status certificates for foreign workers.

A man who recently quit as an aide to a lawmaker said he similarly asked relevant authorities about the status of the visa applications of foreign workers sent from an agent.

“The prolonged screening by immigration authorities could cause problems for brokers,” the former aide said. “There are many cases in which they contact politicians to speed up the process.”

Eriko Suzuki, a sociology professor at Kokushikan University who is knowledgeable about immigration policy, urged politicians to be wary.

“It takes a long time to recruit personnel overseas and develop conditions to accept foreign workers,” Suzuki said. “Gaining quick access on information about the legal systems would provide a great advantage for agents.

“But what is important for lawmakers is that they think from a public-interest perspective without prioritizing the benefits of brokers who have made contributions.”

(This article was written by Toshi Yamazaki and Kazumichi Kubota.)