Photo/Illutration A Chinese technical intern trainee cleans squid at a plant in Ofunato, Iwate Prefecture. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

The government's plan to allow foreign technical intern trainees who have lost their jobs because of the new coronavirus outbreak to change their employers should be only a temporary, stopgap measure to deal with an emergency.

The current crisis should not be used to allow the Technical Intern Training Program, which has been plagued by various contradictions and problems, to remain in place without serious reforms to correct the flaws.

The government has decided to create a system that will, in effect, match foreign trainees looking for jobs with companies and other entities unable to fill positions despite the principle that trainees working under the program should remain with their original employers and not change jobs.

Many foreign trainees in industries that have been hit particularly hard by the outbreak, such as the tourist and certain manufacturing industries, have lost their positions as their companies have suspended their business operations. In contrast, the agricultural, forestry, fisheries and nursing care industries are facing a serious labor shortage partly because the new trainees who were expected to join the workforce in these sectors cannot come to Japan because of strict border controls.

The new plan will help jobless trainees to find jobs in different industries and work for one year.

There must be a sizable number of foreign technical intern trainees who have lost their jobs in Japan but cannot return home due to the pandemic. They deserve to receive policy support. The plan will also help many businesses and industries strapped for manpower.

But the fact is that this technical intern program has been dogged by allegations of a wide range of human rights violations, such as illegally low wages and long overtime and violence against trainees by employers.

The government should first urge businesses who have hired trainees to keep them on the payroll.

Only when the employers have good reason to stop hiring them should the government come in to help them find new employers by referring them to businesses looking for workers, but only according to the wishes of the trainees.

Only employers who have not committed any related violation in the past and pledge to abide by the rules should be eligible for the government's emergency job-placement service. It should be ensured that all these procedures and principles for the service will be observed.

Many of the trainees who switch jobs will probably move from urban to rural areas. Since confirmed cases of infection with the coronavirus are concentrated in large cities, local communities could be concerned about an inflow of workers from urban areas.

It is vital to provide sufficient information to the local communities and residents in the neighborhoods of businesses accepting new trainees so that there will be a consensus within the communities on the matter.

After the one-year period covered by the stopgap measure, the trainees will be allowed to stay and work for an additional five years under a new residency status program launched in April last year.

The "Specified Skilled Worker" status of residence has been established to attract more foreign workers under a new working visa program separate from the technical intern training program, which purports to make international contributions through human development.

This new Specified Skilled Worker program is also riddled with flaws, including the rules that, in principle, require workers to return home after five years of working in Japan and not allow them to bring their families to Japan.

As of the end of last year, less than 2,000 foreigners were working under the flawed system, which was introduced by the government and ruling camp in a rash manner.

In contrast, the number of foreign technical intern trainees has been growing steadily and reached some 410,000.

Because employers are in overwhelmingly stronger positions than these trainees, it should be assumed that it is impossible to eliminate human rights violations related to the program.

The coronavirus outbreak has underscored afresh the grim reality of how heavily Japanese society is now dependent on foreign workers.

The basic principle for accepting foreign workers should be to treat them as full-fledged members of society and not as mere manpower.

Both the public and private sector actors involved should act on this principle and continue monitoring the well-being of technical trainees.

The stopgap measure should be used as a starting point for renewed efforts to scale down and eventually scrap the troubled program while reviewing the nation's entire system to tap human resources abroad.

--The Asahi Shimbun, April 30