Govt must improve foreign intern program

The revised Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Law took effect in July, enhancing legal protection for foreign interns participating in a government-authorized training program.

However, some observers say the revision of the law merely puts off dealing with the real problems. The program is said to be occupational training in name only, with some going so far as to call it de facto slave labor.

It remains to be seen if the revisions will solve this issue. If the situation does not change, we believe it is meaningless to continue the program.

The current program was established in 1989 to provide foreign nationals with opportunities to learn advanced technology and skills in Japan, thereby becoming forces for development in their own countries.

It has accepted 50,000 to 70,000 young foreign nationals every year for training that can continue up to three years, in fields such as textiles, machinery, metal, food, construction, agriculture and fishing. Over 80 percent of the trainees are Chinese nationals.

Brutal hours, paltry wages

The program has two ways of accepting foreign interns: Companies bring over employees of their own subsidiaries in foreign countries, or organizations of small and midsize firms or agricultural groups accept interns and send them to member companies or farms for training. The overwhelming majority of problems occur in the latter segment.

Many irregularities in the program were pointed out during Diet deliberations to revise the law, such as foreign trainees working long hours and being paid below-minimum wages of about 300 yen per hour. Some trainees reportedly cannot quit the program midway through because the agencies in their countries that sent them to Japan will demand large penalty charges.

A majority of trainees are said to be unskilled laborers who only want to make money in this country.

The 31-year-old Chinese intern who died suddenly in 2008 while working at a metal plating company in Ibaraki Prefecture is a typical case. He was allegedly forced to work for low pay and to put in 100 to 150 hours of overtime every month. He was allowed only two days off per month.

A labor standards inspection office in the prefecture intends to recognize his death as the result of overwork.

In 2008, labor offices around the country instructed companies to improve labor conditions for foreign trainees in a total of 2,612 cases.

The reality is far from the program’s ideal of contributing to the international community. It seems industries that cannot hire Japanese workers have been taking advantage of it to quietly use foreign labor.

Wishful thinking

The revised law stipulates that the Labor Standards Law and the Minimum Wage Law apply to foreign trainees from their first year in the program; under the old law, they applied only from the second year. The revised law also requires industrial organizations to strengthen their instruction and supervision of member companies that accept foreign interns.

However, some of the companies using foreign interns have been ignoring labor-related regulations. Many industrial organizations and their member companies are like fraternities–can we really expect these organizations to strictly supervise their members?

Many trainees have to go home because the companies they work for suddenly go bankrupt. At the very least, the revised law should have included a measure to prohibit struggling companies from accepting interns.

The government-authorized program has become a legal loophole for hiring unskilled foreign laborers. The government must move forward with discussions on how this country should accept foreign workers in the future.