Chinese intern death in Japan ‘very likely’ due to overwork

A Chinese intern employed in Japan under a government training program “very likely” died because he had been overworked, labour officials said Friday.

The 31-year-old man worked at a metal processing firm in Ibaraki prefecture, northeast of Tokyo, and died of cardiac arrest in June 2008 after working more than 100 hours overtime the month before.

The government program has long been criticized for the ease with which it can be used for labour exploitation, and lawyers said it was the first such death to be recognized as a result of overwork, but likely only the tip of the iceberg.

Japan has strict immigration rules, but some companies, especially in manufacturing, have used a loophole to bring in low-wage foreign workers on “training” schemes under the foreign assistance program.

Amid rising concern over abuses under the scheme, a government body announced last year that a record 34 workers from Asia, mainly Chinese nationals, had died in Japan in the year to March 2009 alone.

“This is a case very likely to be recognized as ‘karoshi’ (overwork death),” said a spokesman for the area labour office, adding the case was filed with prosecutors against the company Fuji Denka Kogyo and his 66-year-old boss.

Last year the Japan International Training Co-operation Organization, which oversees the nation’s training programs, said of the 34 deaths in the year to March 2009 that 16 died of heart and brain ailments, five died in workplace accidents and one committed suicide.

Some 190,000 foreigners — mainly from China, Indonesia and the Philippines — are currently believed to be in Japan on government training programs.

Lawyer Shoichi Ibusuki, a member of a legal group that has represented trainee workers in cases of alleged abuse [and special guest at Zenkoku Ippan Tokyo General Union‘s 2010 Convention], said that the foreign trainees are being exploited by Japanese companies.

Many of the trainees work on assembly lines, mainly in the textiles, food processing and machinery sectors.

Japan has one of the world’s lowest birth rates, but it has so far rejected allowing large-scale immigration of unskilled workers.