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Japan immigration

Low pay propels most foreign interns who flee Japanese jobs

Majority earned less than $890 per month

Japan's technical internship program is often criticized as serving to exploit cheap foreign labor in short-handed industries, like construction. (Photo by Ken Kobayashi)

TOKYO -- Low wages represent the principal reason that many foreign interns in Japan desert their jobs, a recent report by the Ministry of Justice found, highlighting that these workers often are regarded simply as a cheap way to plug Japan's ever-growing labor shortage.

A total of 7,089 foreign interns fled their jobs in 2017, while another 4,279 did so during the first six months of this year. The ministry surveyed interns who ran away before December 2017 and were caught violating the country's immigration control law.

Low pay was cited by 67.2% of the 2,870 respondents in explaining why they left. The majority had earned no more than 100,000 yen ($886) per month, while fewer than 10% received over 150,000 yen monthly.

The survey found other reasons as well, as 17.8% said they wanted to continue working in Japan after their internship ended, 12.6% thought their supervisors were too strict and 7.1% said their hours were too long. Also, 4.9% of the interns reported experiencing violence at their workplace. The respondents, many of whom came from China, Vietnam or Indonesia, were allowed to give multiple answers.

More than 274,000 foreigners participated in Japan's technical internship program last year, the ministry said.

Japan's chronic labor shortage has prompted the government to create two new visa categories for foreign workers that take effect in April. Most of the 14 employment sectors affected are counting on the technical intern program to serve as a feeder for these new visas, but the recent survey sheds light on problems that could upset such plans.

Both the intern program and the new visas require companies to give foreign employees the same or better working conditions as their Japanese peers. Enforcing these rules and promoting higher overall wages in the 14 sectors will be crucial to attracting skilled foreigners.

In South Korea, another country with strict immigration policies, the government is heavily involved in ensuring equal working conditions for foreigners and locals, as well as providing foreign workers with opportunities to learn Korean. The International Labor Organization, a U.N. agency, rates these efforts highly.

Japan's Justice Ministry initially claimed that up to 86.9% of those who fled internships did so because of pay, an error that downplayed the harsh conditions and even violence that some of the workers experienced. Opposition parties cited this error to try to delay the parliamentary debate on the new visas.

"We absolutely need to correct our mistakes," a ministry official said. "But it makes no difference to the fact that wages for foreign interns continue to be a problem."

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