August 18, 2016 6:05 pm JST

Abuses rampant in foreign trainee program, Japan labor ministry finds

KENTARO IWAMOTO, Nikkei staff writer

Japan's labor ministry has uncovered numerous violations of the government's technical trainee program for foreign workers.

TOKYO -- Japan may be running short of workers, creating demand for help from abroad, but nearly 3,700 Japanese workplaces that took "technical intern trainees" from overseas in 2015 were in violation of the country's labor standards, an inspection by the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare revealed this week.

Most interns come from Asian countries such as China and Vietnam. They typically work in places that have trouble filling open positions, such as small factories or farms. According to the ministry, approximately 35,000 workplaces hosted interns as of the end of 2015.

Based on past violations and tipoffs from workers, the labor ministry last year inspected 5,173 workplaces across the country. Of those, 3,695 were found to be in breach of labor standards. Violations included failure to pay adequate overtime and subjecting workers to unsafe conditions. The number of violations was up 24% from the previous year's 2,977 places.

Train to nowhere

According to the audit, 1,169 places violated rules for work hours. One employer forced interns to work up to 169 hours of overtime in a single month. Safety violations were found at 1,076 locations. In one serious case, an intern who was operating a forklift without a license was killed in an accident. The inspections found 774 locations in violation of regulations on supplementary pay.

Interns are supposed to be employed under Japan's labor standards, but many employers interpret the rules to their advantage. "It is not working, it is training," claimed one employer found to have skimped on overtime pay. "We have not updated the wage system that we set about four years ago," said another employer who paid trainees less the legal minimum wage.

The government-run internship program began in 1993, aiming to give people from developing countries the opportunity to learn skills they could bring back home. However, this year, the U.S. State Department's Trafficking in Persons report pointed out that a program "originally designed to foster basic technical skills among foreign workers has effectively become a guest-worker program." The report says many interns are "placed in jobs that do not teach or develop technical skills."

According to Japan's Ministry of Justice, there were 192,655 technical interns in Japan as of the end of 2015, an increase of about 15% from the previous year. China was the largest source of interns, at 46.2% of the total, followed by Vietnam at 29.9% and the Philippines at 9.2%.

"Recently, more violations are being discovered because workers have more channels to explain their situation, including social media -- such as by posting a photo of a terrible apartment," Eriko Suzuki, a professor specializing in immigration policy at Japan's Kokushikan University, told the Nikkei Asian Review. "To encourage employers to improve working conditions," the Suzuki said, "we need a system that allows interns to change their place of work." Under the current system, interns are generally required to work in one place during their three-year stint.

The official from the labor ministry's inspection division said the ministry will continue to urge the violators to improve conditions. Those found to have committed serious breaches will be subject to legal sanctions, the official warned.

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