Dying to work: Japan Inc.’s foreign trainees

“The Industrial Trainees and Technical Interns program often fuels demand for exploitative cheap labor under conditions that constitute violations of the right to physical and mental health, physical integrity, freedom of expression and movement of foreign trainees and interns, and that in some cases may well amount to slavery. This program should be discontinued and replaced by an employment program.”


According to Lila Abiko of the Lawyers’ Network for Trainees, foreign “trainees” and “interns” are really just cheap migrant labor under another name.

Although the official purpose of the training and internship program is “international contribution and cooperation through human resource development of technology,” Abiko believes the reality is very different.

“There is a big gap between this system’s purpose and the reality. This is a fundamental problem,” she said.

Abiko argues that the trainee and intern system developed the way it did in Japan because of innate problems in the country’s immigration law.

In 1989, at the height of Japan’s bubble economy, an amendment was made to the Immigration and Control and Refugee Recognition Act that established the new “trainee” status-of-residence category.

At this time, a massive need for labor had developed as a result of Japan’s booming economy, but public opposition to the notion of accepting unskilled foreign labor en masse remained high.

Fearful of upsetting public opinion but under pressure from corporate Japan, the government decided to let in foreign migrant workers as “trainees.” At the same time it also granted Brazilians of Japanese descent long-term residency status.

Thus, Abiko claims, corporate Japan’s hunger for labor was largely sated, but a system had been formed whose true intentions were concealed behind a facade of altruistic intentions.

Originating mainly from China and Southeast Asia, trainees and interns are lured to Japan with the promise that they will acquire skills and knowledge they can later use in their own country. Instead, many of them get low-paid, unskilled jobs, minus the basic rights and safeguards any Japanese worker would enjoy.

Recent amendments to the Immigration Control Act, which also included changes to Japan’s alien registration card system, have improved the situation for participants of the internship program, although arguably it is a case of too little, too late.

Under the old system, those in the first year of the program were officially classed as “trainees,” not workers, meaning they were unable to claim the protections Japanese labor law affords regular employees.

For example, the minimum wage in Japan varies according to prefecture, and currently the national average is ¥713 per hour. But as foreign trainees are not technically “workers,” employers are not obliged to pay them even this. Instead, they receive a monthly “trainee allowance,” which for most first-year trainees falls between ¥60,000 and ¥80,000 — the equivalent to an hourly wage in the range of ¥375 to ¥500 for a full-time 40-hour week.

For first-year trainees, trying to survive on such a low income is a real struggle, so most have to do a great deal of overtime just to make ends meet.

Although the “trainee” residency status still exists for foreign workers who arrived before 2010, it is currently being phased out, and from 2011 all first-year participants in the program will be classed as technical interns. This a significant step forward, as the Labor Standards Law and the Minimum Wage Act apply to foreign migrant workers with technical-intern residency status. However, whether migrant workers are actually able to access the protections they are entitled to is another matter, and the issue of oversight — or the lack of it — is still a long way from being resolved.

Abiko believes this absence of proper oversight has grown out of the internship program’s weak regulatory structure and a general lack of government accountability. The government entrusts most of the operations of the internship program to JITCO, an authority that lacks the power to sanction participating organizations or companies, says Abiko.

“JITCO is just a charitable organization. It is very clear that JITCO is not appropriate to regulate and monitor this program.”

In addition, she argues, the financial relationship between JITCO and the collectives or companies under which trainees work makes JITCO’s role as a regulatory body even more untenable. JITCO’s total income for the 2008 financial year was ¥2.94 billion. More than half this amount, ¥1.66 billion, came from “support membership fees” paid by the companies themselves.

“How can JITCO appropriately regulate and monitor their support members when they are dependent on them for membership fees?” she said.