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Japan immigration

Foreign workers left high and dry in Japan's coronavirus economy

Rigid rules keep laid-off participants in trainee program from going where need is greatest

Foreign workers are essential to keep farms running in such areas as Gunma Prefecture, known for its vegetables.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- The Vietnamese woman came to Japan to work for a sushi producer in the greater Osaka region under a program for trainees, only to suddenly find herself jobless and evicted from employee housing. The company had laid her off in late April over shrinking sales, forcing her to take refuge in a shelter.

Meanwhile, farms in Japan are desperate for help in the fields.

The pandemic has driven struggling Japanese companies to illegally terminate foreign technical trainees even as immigration restrictions leave farms without vital staff -- and a tangle of red tape blocks workers from rectifying this mismatch.

Since April, the Federation of Workers' Union of the Burmese Citizen in Japan has fielded a number of complaints from trainees from Myanmar let go from their jobs over the crisis. In Nagano Prefecture, eight interns who came from Myanmar last summer were forced to sign documents agreeing to withdraw from their employment contracts at hotels and factories amid poor earnings, according to the union.

Labor unions and nonprofit organizations across the country have been approached for help by laid-off trainees, while other interns report having their pay cut by half or more while idled.

Japan launched the technical intern training program in 1993 with the stated intention of transferring skills and technology to developing nations. About 410,000 trainees were in the program as of the end of 2019, making up a particularly fast-growing share of foreign workers as a whole.

Much like regular Japanese employees, technical interns sign employment contracts that strictly limit termination during the training period. But in a growing number of cases, employers squeezed by the COVID-19 outbreak have taken advantage of trainees' poor Japanese-language skills and lack of legal knowledge to force them to end their contracts.

Meanwhile, the agricultural industry, which takes about 10% of technical interns, faces an increasingly dire labor shortage.

Immigration restrictions imposed by Japan in February have blocked Chinese trainees who had been slated to begin working on farms in April, with no clear timeline for their arrival.

"We don't have enough people for our spinach harvest," lamented the head of Nakazawa Farm in Gunma Prefecture, a major vegetable-growing area, adding that the farm would lose the equivalent of tens of thousands of dollars in sales.

Because the program's stated purpose is transferring skills, trainees are generally not allowed to change employers partway through. Some exceptions are made if an intern cannot continue at a particular workplace -- but such moves are tightly restricted, with workers required to stay in the same occupation.

This rigidity has led to the current mismatch between labor supply and demand.

The Justice Ministry, which oversees immigration, on April 20 began permitting interns to change occupations in order to stay employed. But given that this measure requires both the trainee and the original employer to be involved in the job search, it remains unclear whether the system will work.

"It's a tough ask for trainees without cellphones, and employers on the verge of bankruptcy can't afford" to handle such tasks, a senior labor union official said.

Farms in the Nagano Prefecture village of Kawakami, one of Japan's top lettuce producers, have begun bringing on foreign workers from hotels and inns in place of technical trainees from such countries as China. But this applies mainly to permanent residents, who lack the restrictions on job-switching that interns face.

South Korea's protections are more generous. The government handles arbitration between foreign workers and their employers and helps find new jobs for those who have to change workplaces. Japan will need to provide similarly detailed support, including information in multiple languages about the newly expanded job-switching rules.

In an effort to transition away from the technical trainee program, Japan launched a new renewable work visa in April 2019 that offers a pathway to permanent residency. But the government issued only around 3,000 by the end of February -- far short of its estimate of up to 47,000 in the first year -- owing to factors including a lack of knowledge about the program.

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