Media watch: High court “forgives” trainee convicted of abandoning baby, but only up to a point

Vietnamese trainees in Japan

Technical trainees who come from overseas to work in Japan are subject to conditions that don’t necessarily apply to foreign workers who come to Japan with conventional work visas. There are many people who feel these conditions are unreasonable, especially given the general understanding that the technical trainee system, whose ostensible purpose is to “transfer technology” from Japan to so-called developing countries, was mainly put in place to provide Japanese employers with cheap labor. 

One such perceived condition is that trainees cannot be pregnant while they are in Japan. Any trainee who is found to be pregnant may be subject to deportation. This rule became headline news in December 2020 when the Kumamoto district prosecutor indicted a Vietnamese trainee on suspicion of abandoning not one, but two dead bodies. The trainee, a 21-year-old woman named Le Thi Thuy Linh, worked on a tangerine farm and had given birth to twin boys in mid-November 2020. The indictment says it was likely the twins were stillborn, and she placed the bodies in a cardboard box and put it on a shelf in the house where she lived in the town of Ashikita. A Dec. 29, 2020, Mainichi Shimbun story described Le’s situation and said she tried to hide her pregnancy from others by wearing loose clothing, afraid that if her condition was discovered she’d be sent back to Vietnam. She earned about ¥150,000 a month, of which ¥120,000 she sent back to family in Vietnam. She had arrived in Japan in Aug. 2018 and was hoping to stay and work until Aug. 2021.

Le gave birth by herself after working half-a-day in the fields. Two days later she was brought to a hospital where “the abandonment of the babies’ bodies came to light.” She was subsequently arrested and, according to Mainichi, said that she was afraid of being fired and sent back home, but there was no one she could talk to about it. Even when she had fallen sick a month earlier, she refused treatment due to fear that the pregnancy would be discovered.

The fact is, the prohibition against pregnancy for trainees is not part of the official technical trainee program, but is rather implemented by the organizations that handle the applications of possible trainees in their home countries and more often than not extract a hefty fee for their services. In any event, there is no specific law in Japan that makes it illegal for a trainee to be pregnant, but, as Le’s lawyers pointed out during her defense, this fact is not properly explained to trainees after they arrive. Their rights as workers should fall under the same protections as those that shield regular workers. Asahi Shimbun reported on Dec. 11, 2020, that, according to the immigration bureau, the labor standards law “should” also apply to foreign technical trainees, which means not only can they not be fired for being pregnant, but they should also be allowed time off for delivery and recovery. It should be noted that Le’s case was not the first of its kind. In 2019, the immigration bureau sent out a notification telling associations and organizations that accept trainees before dispatching them to employers that it was forbidden to punish them for being pregnant. There have been numerous instances of trainees abandoning babies, as well as instances of trainees who, having been found to be pregnant, were deported at their own expense. At the same time, there have been cases where trainees have given birth in Japan and, thanks to help from local support groups, were not punished or deported. In one case, a Vietnamese trainee received resident status and returned to work. The point here is that, despite the immigration bureau’s notification, the central government is not actively involved in protecting trainees. South Korea, which has a similar trainee system as well as similar attendant problems, also has a national network of government-run support facilities. Japan doesn’t. Any support is provided by non-profit NGOs. 

However, none of these circumstances were relevant to Le’s criminal case, which hinged on the abandonment of a corpse. Whatever misunderstandings she had about her situation, once she put those two dead babies in a box without informing the authorities, she had committed a felony, and last July she was convicted by a district court and sentenced to 8 months in prison, suspended for 3 years. 

Naturally, her lawyers appealed, and, according to Mainichi Shimbun, on Jan. 19 the Fukuoka High Court upheld the conviction but reduced the lower court sentence to 3 months imprisonment suspended for 2 years. The high court judge admitted that he was moved by Le’s story of hiding her pregnancy and stillbirth delivery in order to keep “studying,” so a certain “degree of forgiveness” was in order. Needless to say, her defense was not satisfied, since they demanded the conviction itself be thrown out based on their assertion that her intention was always to inter the two bodies. (The Fukuoka High Court judged it was not illegal that she kept her babies for 33 hours.) They plan to appeal again. At the press conference following the trial, one of Le’s lawyers described the judge’s logic as being “rough.” 

A Kumamoto-based trainee support group told both Asahi and Mainichi that the first solution is to crack down more on the accepting organizations that dispatch the workers. By law, employers themselves cannot hire trainees. They have to go through local associations that have been set up expressly for this purpose, but in order to protect the interests of the companies they represent, they tend to provide trainees with as little information and resources as legally possible. At the very least, these associations should regularly inspect worksites to talk with trainees about their issues. In 2020, the support group addressed 40 separate problems with trainees, of which 6 involved pregnancies. Obviously, Le became pregnant after she arrived in Japan, so part of these associations’ job should be health advice, including how and where to get contraception. The support group, noting that the high court judge’s decision was “inadequate,” said the only real solution was holding the accepting associations accountable for these kinds of problems, rather than punishing the trainees themselves. And that’s the government’s job. 

Corrections: Originally, the blog stated incorrectly that Le worked a full day before giving birth, and that her retrial Jan. 19 ended with her sentence being suspended for 3 years.

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