Foreign workers fear exploitation as Olympic projects gather steam

My first Labor Pains column of the new fiscal year will look at the government’s recent proposal for bringing in foreign workers.

Various proposals on easing immigration restrictions for foreign workers have been bandied about in recent years, but they were inevitably scrapped because “Japan is but a tiny island nation.” (In fact, Japan is the fifth-largest island nation in the world, after Australia, Indonesia, Madagascar and Papua New Guinea.) Incidentally, there are currently 2.03 million foreign residents and more than 700,000 foreign workers in Japan, so the country is already quite multinational and multiethnic in composition.

Discussion on this topic was reignited earlier this year by a Jan. 3 Kyodo News report headlined, “Government aims to increase hiring of foreign construction workers to make up for labor shortfalls ahead of 2020 Olympic Games.” The article went on to say that the ruling Liberal Democratic Party is considering whether to expand the use of ginō jisshūsei, or technical interns, from Vietnam and other Asian countries to meet the construction rush ahead of the games. Reading this article sent a shiver down my spine and spoiled my new-calendar-year mood.

A group dedicated to building Japan’s workforce and boosting productivity in the LDP’s Headquarters for Japan’s Economic Revitalization subsequently proposed on March 26 to extend the limit foreign interns can stay in the country from three years to five years.

On April 3, the Japan Federation of Bar Associations (Nichibenren) issued a statement that strongly opposed the government’s plan to expand the intern system. (See the report at here.)

People working as “technical interns” are employed under a trainee/technical intern system that was set up by the government and small business groups in 1993. The supposed purpose of this system was to bring in foreigners to learn through training and internship the superior technology, skills and knowledge of Japan, so that they could then go back and contribute to the economic development of their home country. The reality, however, was very different.

The first year was devoted to “training,” meaning that the “trainee” had no protection under labor law. They gained that protection in the second year of internship. The reality was a form of modern slavery, as the trainees were simply low-wage earners: bathroom breaks were timed using stopwatches in order to dock wages, their private lives were closely monitored, and their passports and bank passbooks were confiscated. Anyone who dared to complain was driven to the airport and pushed onto a plane back to their home country. The U.S. State Department slammed the practice as “modern-day human trafficking and forced labor in Japan.”

Several court cases were pursued over such vicious practices and trainees began demanding to be treated as human beings. The Tsu District Court ruled in the Sanwa Service case on March 18, 2009, that “foreign trainees” are in fact workers/employees and must be paid wages and overtime in line with the minimum wage. The verdict in this case, thankfully, obliterated the system of trainees.

The combination of the verdict and the scolding given by the U.S. — ironically, this may have had the greatest impact — finally gave the government the catalyst it needed to reform the system. In 2009, the Immigration Law was reformed to eliminate the system of trainees not protected by labor law.

However, the system survives to this day in the form of the foreign technical intern system, whose purpose remained premised on the “importance of international cooperation and contribution to the development of other countries’ economic development through the transfer of skills to these interns.” Technical interns were issued visas for up to three years before they would be sent packing to their home country.

What also persists to this day is the horrible working and living conditions of the “interns” themselves. Although on paper they are protected by labor law, their employers simply ignore it in many cases around the country.

If anything, employers learned valuable lessons and tricks about how to get away with even greater abuse, and rely on such pretty words as “helping developing countries” and “human-resource development.”

Government and industry — particularly those with serious labor shortages such as agriculture, forestries, fisheries, manufacturing and textiles — collude to exploit these interns as low-wage workers in long-term positions without any employment responsibility. We have reached the point that industry in general can no longer survive in many remote areas without this exploitative system in place.

However, the Kyodo piece drops all pretense, or tatemae, of helping other countries by teaching their workers. We no longer hear flowery phrases such as “international cooperation” or “technological transfer.” Rather, policymakers openly discuss the need to assuage worker shortages ahead of the 2020 Olympic Games when construction labor demand will peak. Cheap foreign workers have become the go-to objects of exploitation, particularly for jobs that even young Japanese workers don’t want to do. The problem was that the bosses need more than three years of exploitation, so in its infinite wisdom, the LDP has come out with a plan to extend the period to five years, all the while careful to note that they must return to their home country after that period. Apparently we don’t want those lowly foreign workers living here long term, do we?

The Kyodo report reveals that the LDP has completely departed from the original stated goals of the intern system (that is, to teach skills, et cetera) and intends simply to extend the ranks of cheap foreign construction workers. Lawmakers have forgotten the reports of the cruel treatment that was meted out to trainees just five years earlier. How nice it would be if our country’s leaders could remember the words of Swiss writer Max Frisch: “We asked for workers. We got people instead.”

Hifumi Okunuki teaches at Sagami Women’s University and serves as executive president of Tozen Union (Zenkoku Ippan Tokyo General Union). She can be reached at On the second Thursday of each month, Hifumi looks at cases in Japan’s legal history to illustrate important principles in labor law.