Abuse rife within trainee system, say NGOs

Foreigners report harsh job conditions, poverty-line pay, mistreatment under notorious program

Started in 1993, the aim of the Technical Intern Training Program is to “provide training in technical skills, technology (and) knowledge” to workers from developing countries, according to the Japan International Training Cooperation Organization (JITCO), which oversees the program. But in practice, say advocacy groups, the majority of both trainees and the companies who accept them think of the relationship primarily as regular employment. A convoluted placement system complicates the situation: Between the trainees — the majority of whom come from China — and the workplace where they end up, there are usually at least three intermediary organizations involved, in Japan and the participants’ native country.

Until 2009, the number of trainees in Japan had been rising steadily, with more than 100,000 participating in the program in 2008. The majority of trainees are brought in under the auspices of JITCO. After the global economic crisis, the number of JITCO-authorized trainees fell in 2009 to 50,064 (down from 68,150). According to the latest figures, the total for 2010 was 39,151 as of October.

The Tokyo-based Advocacy Network for Foreign Trainees has served as the national umbrella organization for trainee advocacy groups since 1999. The network’s members are 90 researchers, lawyers, journalists and other individuals, and 10 groups including labor unions and local trainee advocacy groups.

The network’s members exchange and compile information from cases they have dealt with locally every month, and meet once a year to draft recommendations to the government.

But information-sharing is often a one-way street, says [Zentoitsu Workers Union’s] Hiroshi Nakajima, one of the network’s organizers. When a company is turned in for abuses of the program, the Justice Ministry investigates and can punish the placement organization or company by putting a halt on new trainee visas. But Nakajima calls the process a “black box,”; questions go unanswered during investigations, he says, and the resulting punishments are not even made public.

The network is sometimes able to get information on banned companies from the ministry upon request, but not in every case. Often the group only knows that a placement organization or company has been punished when they find that a firm no longer has any trainees.

“Because the immigration authorities don’t publicize the names of the organizations that have been convicted of wrongdoing, we have no way of knowing which organizations should be banned from accepting trainees and until when,” says Nakajima.

Ichiro Takahara of the Fukui Advocacy Network for Foreign Trainees says the local labor bureau also fails to provide relevant public information. Takahara’s group has assisted around 250 interns and trainees since its formation in June 2000 following the Takefu incident.

“The fact that the Labor Standards Inspection Office doesn’t make public the names of the offending companies invites those companies to continue reaping the benefits of engaging in illegal activities,” says Takahara. This, he explains, accounts for the fact that 85 percent of the companies employing trainees that were investigated by the Fukui Labor Bureau in 2009 had committed labor or safety infractions. This was the lowest rate in five years.

“The sense of guilt over committing a labor violation is less than that over committing a traffic violation,” he says.