Foreign trainees easily exploited as bosses take advantage of system

The controversy should have heated up after last month’s ruling by the Kumamoto District Court, which found in favor of four female Chinese trainees who sued their employer and the agent that arranged for that employment. The trainees were awarded unpaid wages amounting to ¥12.8 million as well as damages to the tune of ¥4.4 million. The plaintiffs, who worked for a sewing company, said they were forced to work up to 15 hours a day with only two or three days off a month. They did not receive overtime pay.

Trainees are ostensibly in Japan to learn some sort of skill they can take back to their home country and make a living from. They are not supposed to work overtime because technically they aren’t here as employees, but no one has believed that lie for years now, and the JITCO official’s admission attests to the fact that the real reason for the trainee program is to provide Japanese businesses with cheap labor. This system has given rise to a racket involving semiprivate brokers who traffic in workers from Asia who want to come to Japan and make a lot of money in a short period of time.

The Kumamoto case wasn’t the first in which trainees allegedly have turned on their employers violently, and it wasn’t the first time somebody died as a result. Japanese courts seem to be coming around to the conclusion that these workers are being exploited unfairly. Presently, there are 13 lawsuits being heard in Japanese courts brought by representatives of disgruntled trainees, as well as three arbitration cases.

One that could attract attention involves a construction company in Kawasaki that sued some Chinese trainees who had joined a labor union so that the union could negotiate with the company for unpaid wages. The company sued for “confirmation” that it didn’t owe the trainees any money. The trainees then countersued. The lawyer for the labor union is confident that the ruling, due in May, will favor the trainees and expose the reality that they are here to work and thus deserve protection just like any other workers.