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Servitude in disguise: Japan uses trainee program to exploit foreign workers

Xinhua | Updated: 2017-03-03 15:34
TOKYO/BEIJING -- Fang, a 36-year old Chinese woman, came to Japan a year ago on the promise of job training, decent pay and a chance to achieve a better life back home.

One year later however, she ended up getting a job that involves little training of any sort, but repetitive, strenuous work, skimpy pay and even humiliating scolding from her boss from time to time.

"I really regret coming to Japan," Fang said at her tiny, makeshift room converted from containers in Hiroshima, western Japan. She prefers her full name not to be made public.

Fang's job is sewing clothes at a home-run factory in a remote farmland area, where she works with 28 other Chinese "trainees" who were brought to Japan under a Japanese government-sponsored Technical Intern Training Program.

"We have to work at a hectic pace here, with almost no time to rest," she said, citing the fact that though the Chinese trainees already work very hard, the boss often scolds them for no reason, and yells at them to make them work even harder.

Despite such a heavy work load, Fang has not been able to earn much money as she had expected, as the wages for foreign trainees are only roughly half the amount Japanese workers are paid for doing similar work.

Meanwhile, the living conditions are poor as she has to share with five other trainees a 10-square-meter makeshift room which has neither kitchen, bathroom, air conditioner, heater nor TV and Wi-Fi. The rent for such a room, however, amounts to 120,000 yen (1,056 U.S. dollars) a month, which is much more expensive even than in Tokyo, the Japan's capital.

Lu, a 35-year-old Chinese trainee working at a construction company in Hiroshima, said that almost all the Chinese trainees working in Japan regret about their decisions as they earn a pittance and learn very little from the excessive labor here.

"I hope my compatriots could know what we've been through here in Japan, so that they won't be fooled and make bad choice like us," Fang said.

INTERNSHIP OR SERVITUDE

Fang and Lu's stories are snapshots of the sad experience of hundreds of thousands of foreign trainees working in Japan, many of whom found themselves only used as cheap labor and trapped in indentured servitude.

According to media reports, as of last June, there are altogether 210,000 foreigners working in firms and farms across Japan as what Tokyo calls trainees, among whom the Japanese Ministry of Justice has recently confirmed that some 85,000 are Chinese.

The program, which allows foreign trainees to stay in Japan for three years, was introduced by the Japanese government in 1993, and has been advertised as providing transferrable technical skills for them when they return home.

However, the program has been widely criticized as a platform to attract cheap labor from overseas to compensate for Japan's labor shortage caused by an aging workforce and immigration curbs.

With little legal protection, the foreign trainees are often underpaid, and illegally placed as oyster shuckers, construction workers and other unskilled positions. Many of the indentured work force are exposed to substandard, sometimes even deadly working conditions.

Lu said some Chinese trainees working for other Japanese construction companies are often scolded and even beaten by their bosses.

"I've heard that a Chinese trainee became a vegetable after getting his head seriously wounded by a falling excavator," Lu said, adding the trainee has already been hospitalized for several months but his company has done nothing to help him.

"I don't know what will happen to him in the next," Lu said.

He noted that many of the trainees, before landing in Japan, have already paid large sums of money in broker fees and saddled with insurmountable debts, as Japanese businesses have to hire them through either private or official middlemen according to the program.

Also, as their visas usually tie them to a particular company, they cannot change jobs even when they feel bad about their bosses.

In a system equivalent to modern-day slavery, many interns have escaped, though sometimes it meant breaking the law.

Local news outlet The Japan Times reported in October last year that a record 5,803 foreign trainees went missing in 2015 while working in Japan, among them 3,116 were Chinese, followed by 1,705 from Vietnam, 336 from Myanmar, 250 from Indonesia and 102 from Nepal.

The interns' situation has sparked widespread concerns and attracted the attention of the Chinese government.

The Chinese Embassy in Japan said it will take strong measures to protect the legitimate rights of Chinese nationals working in Japan under the intern training program.

"The Chinese diplomatic and consular missions in Japan attach great importance to protecting Chinese technical trainees in Japan, and have carried out consular protection and assistance work through various channels and means," the embassy told Xinhua in a recent interview.

The Chinese embassy said it will increase contacts with related Japanese ministries to urge the Japanese side to take concrete measures to protect the legal rights of Chinese interns.

The embassy said it has also visited on a regular basis the factories and workshops that hire Chinese trainees so as to learn firsthand about their difficulties and problems.

Last year, the embassy also provided consular protection for and assistance to the Chinese trainees involved in some 100 cases in the island nation, helping them negotiate better deals in labor disputes and offering them legal assistance, among others.

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