Mistreatment of foreign trainees continues in the context of the technical internship

Harassment and other abuse of foreign interns in Japan is on the rise, sparking criticism that the supervisory agency in charge of the government-sponsored technical internship program has failed in its role of overseeing the program.

Support groups say surveys of companies accepting foreign interns have been insufficient at best, while years after the program was established there is still no viable framework available to lend a helping hand to interns.

A Vietnamese technical trainee (front) reads a script aloud from a smartphone during a press conference held at the Miyagi prefectural government building in Sendai in April 2022. The person requested that his face not be shown. (Kyodo)

At a press conference held at the Miyagi prefectural government building in Sendai in April, three Vietnamese women complained that they were loudly scolded by their superiors and not paid for the work they had done before officially starting to work in a seafood processing company in the prefectural city of Ishinomaki. In February, they said, their employer pressured them to quit.

The three came to Japan in October 2019 and started working at the company under the internship program, which aims to transfer skills to developing countries. The scheme, however, is often criticized as a cover for companies to import cheap labor from other Asian countries.

“I am struggling to survive because I have no income,” said one of the women. “I want to work in a happy environment,” added another.

The three women joined the Sendai Keyaki union, a union representing workers who join individually.

According to the union, when the three men sought advice from the Sendai office of the Internship Technical Training Organization, which oversees the internship program, an OTIT official actually told them to leave the union to reunite with their use.

The union protested, calling the request a violation of the workers’ right to join a union, and OTIT later acknowledged that the advice was inappropriate. In early June, OTIT finally told Vietnamese women that they would be allowed to change jobs.

The OTIT, which is supposed to carry out on-site inspections in companies and supervisory bodies and protect the human rights of trainees, was established jointly by the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Labor in 2017 to ensure the proper course of the internship program. Instead, many claim he all but dodged his responsibilities to the interns.

Some 276,000 foreigners were employed in Japan under the training program by the end of 2021, according to the Justice Ministry. Vietnamese made up 58.1% of the total, followed by Chinese at 13.6% and Indonesians at 13.6%. 9.1%.

In fiscal year 2020, OTIT received some 13,300 consultations from foreign interns in their native language, of which 3,210 were for “management related” issues such as bullying and harassment, roughly double of the number of the previous year.

As foreign interns often become heavily indebted in their home countries after paying agents to arrange their participation in the internship program, they cannot easily return even if their working conditions in Japan turn out to be unfavorable.

According to Posse, a Tokyo-based nonprofit that deals with labor issues, a Cambodian man ‘disappeared’ from a construction site in the Kanto region in December 2020 after working without pay and went to the OTIT office in Tokyo to seek temporary shelter. But the bureau deferred his support to determine if he “needed” shelter. Posse felt compelled to step in to find the man a place to live.

“OTIT should protect interns but is slow to act. Municipalities and other local governments close to them should improve their consulting services,” said Makoto Iwahashi, 32, a Posse consultant.

However, an OTIT public relations officer replied that local non-profit mentoring organizations, which act as intermediaries in hiring foreign trainees, have a duty to support them “until the last moment”. . The official said OTIT only provides assistance when such support is insufficient.

OTIT is slow in protecting workers’ rights, said Wako Asato, an associate professor at Kyoto University who is familiar with labor issues involving foreign workers. This is despite the fact that its “main tasks are to certify company training programs and select oversight organizations”.

“OTIT needs to improve its expertise and prepare to approach labor issues related to interns from a fairer perspective,” he said.

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