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Lies and abuses: Untold truths of Japan's intern training program

Xinhua | Updated: 2017-02-22 10:41

TOKYO/BEIJING - Tian is a Chinese woman in her forties who dreamt of learning valuable skills and making real money in Japan. Now, as she has been trapped in an endless cycle of forced overtime, that dream has become a nightmare.

Tian is from Northwest China's Gansu province and, fearing retaliation from her revelations, prefers her full name not to be made public.

Almost two and a half years ago, she came to work in a manufacturing factory in a landlocked prefecture in central Japan, under a government-sponsored program called Technical Intern Training Program with a three-year contract.

Tian's factory is tiny with only a total of seven workers -- three Chinese, three Cambodians and one Japanese.

Inside the workshop, her job is to process interior parts for vehicles. For her and her Chinese colleagues there, every day is like sitting in a hellish dungeon.

"We have to work unbearably long hours everyday," she told Xinhua. "We start to work at 7 in the early morning and only get off as late as 9 or 10 at night, with just one hour for lunch and supper. Overwork is just a daily routine."

Yet despite such a heavy work load, her wages and overtime pay are a pittance, roughly half the amount Japanese workers are paid for doing similar work. Meanwhile, she neither receives annuity nor has been covered by any insurance policy whatsoever.

"What I am doing everyday is to repeat the same procedures ... I have learned very little here," she said, adding that they had to pay for training lessons when they first started the job.

Things are no better for You, one of Tian's Chinese co-workers in the factory who is from east China's Zhejiang province. She also prefers not to have her full name made public.

You said they have almost no time to rest, even on weekends, adding that the owner shows little respect for foreign workers, desperately forcing them to work even longer to increase output.

"We are like prisoners," she said. "You know what, the boss even forbids us to go to the toilet within the first hour of our work."

Cheap labor

The stories of Tian and You are sad, shocking and alarming. Yet they only represent two of tens of thousands of other Chinese trainees working in Japan on the intern program.

Tokyo first introduced the program in 1993. Officially, it claims to bring in interns from developing countries and help them acquire technical skills they can bring back to their homelands to contribute to local economic development.

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. The Japanese Ministry of Justice said recently that among these foreign workers, some 85,000 are Chinese.

Japan's promise to help developing economies train their own skilled workers has been proved to be largely deceptive: In an island nation with its workforce rapidly aging, many Japanese companies have turned to the intern system for cheap foreign labor.

Most trainees come to Japan only to do the low-paying 3K (dangerous, dirty and difficult in the Japanese language) jobs, most of which the Japanese themselves would not want to do.

Though interns of the program coming to Japan are promised to be protected by Japan's labor laws and minimum wages, the Japanese employers have exploited such foreigners since they are not familiar with the legal rules, not to mention helplessness when it comes to availing themselves of the legal system in Japan to defend their rights.

That has invited a pervasive delay of payments, mistreatment and harassment, and abuses of their legitimate rights and interests have been rampant.

"The boss didn't care about us at all," recalled a young Chinese man surnamed Chen, who has returned to China after working as a trainee in a clothing factory in Kumamoto in western Japan for three years.

"We lived in horrible conditions, with five to six people packed in the same tiny room. Summers and winters were the hardest because two people shared only one electric fan in summer and we didn't have any heating devices in winter because the boss wouldn't allow them. We were even denied access to electric blankets," Chen told Xinhua.

Lu Pengren, a Chinese living in Japan who has many trainee friends from China, told Xinhua that many trainees were maliciously placed under surveillance cameras, both at work and in their dorms. The contracts the trainees received were mostly unfair, and some companies even took the contracts away.

"We couldn't have a life there. We were prohibited from making any friends. We couldn't go outside the factory alone. We could only visit the supermarkets supervised by the Japanese foreman. When we met Chinese on the way, we were even not allowed to greet them," recalled Chen, sobbing.

Last June, Japan's Labor Ministry inspected 5,173 workplaces across the country. Of those, 3,695 were found to be in breach of foreign labor standards, according to the Nikkei Asian Review.

Modern-day slavery

According to the program, Japanese businesses have to hire such foreign workers through either private or official middlemen.

The trainees, before landing in Japan, have already paid large sums of money in broker fees, leaving many of them in debt. 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 said in a report in October last year that a record 5,803 foreign trainees went missing in 2015 while working in Japan, adding that among them 3,116 were Chinese, followed by 1,705 from Vietnam, 336 from Myanmar, 250 from Indonesia and 102 from Nepal.

This has sparked severe concerns that many may have remained in Japan to make a living as black market laborers.

Observers say this is another sign that the technical intern program -- long criticized by rights groups at home and abroad as akin to slavery -- is seriously flawed.

Even so, the Japanese government plans to further expand the trainee program as Japan's population continues to age and shrink.

The Japan Times quoted a Kyodo News survey as saying that nearly a third of 1,240 municipalities across the country said they want more foreign workers to compensate their shrinking labor force.

"Our workforce is shrinking ... We cannot grow rice or build the roads all by ourselves. Therefore, we need foreign friends to help us," said Inotoru, a lawyer in the northern Japanese city of Sapporo.

Since the government wants foreign workers to do the work most Japanese refuse to take, it should guarantee that they receive the same pay as the Japanese do and allow no exploitation, he added.

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