Media watch: Bad conditions for technical interns persist

Despite the negative press that Japan’s overseas technical interm program has received in recent years, nothing about it has changed in any way. According to NHK, in fiscal 2021 there were more than 23,000 formal complaints made to the Organization for Technical Intern Training, most of which involved unpaid wages or unfair dismissals. As of June, there were some 327,000 foreigners in Japan working under the program, which ostensibly was set up to teach technical skills to people from overseas who would then “transfer” these skills to their home countries, but, as everyone has learned through media reports, almost all trainees work in labor-intensive jobs, usually for less than the standard minimum wage, in the agricultural and manufacturing fields. Though they may, in fact, acquire some skills, their main purpose in coming is to make money that they can send or take home. Even if their wages are lower than that made by Japanese workers doing the same jobs, it is usually more than they could earn in their home countries, so the program is essentially a means for companies and organizations to acquire workers at low pay. Consequently, these companies have become dependent on the program, and there are often disputes between employers and employees that goes beyond the usual cross-cultural friction. For instance, interns are often compelled to work overtime and their movement is greatly limited by their employers. Of the aforementioned complaints lodged by interns, 3,200 had to do with not being able to gain permission from employers to return to their home countries for emergencies or other reasons. 

As NHK reports, the number of complaints has continually risen since the complaint service was put in place 5 years ago, even during the height of the COVID pandemic, when Japan was effectively closed to outsiders. Interns who were already in Japan remained to work. Had they left, they wouldn’t have been able to return, even if they hadn’t completed their approved training period. The number of complaints in fiscal 2021 was 80 percent higher than in 2020 and 3.2 times higher than in 2019. The government obviously understands that the program is not being carried out properly and have assembled a panel of experts to review it. However, the panel has yet to schedule even its first meeting. 

The reasons for rectifying the program are not necessarily the obvious ones having to do with workers’ rights. Actually, it is becoming more difficult to attract interns. According to the Immigration Agency, 50 percent of the interns presently in Japan are from Vietnam, and while there are still Vietnamese who have applied to participate in the program, more and more are opting out to work in places like Taiwan, where the conditions and wages are often better than those in Japan. Consequently, many farmers and small factory owners are having a difficult time finding help, at least if they want to pay below-standard wages.

In fact, this possibility has given interns a slightly better advantage in terms of standing up for themselves. Last month, eleven Vietnamese trainees working at a textile company in Ehime Prefecture accused their employer of neglecting to pay them for 150 hours of overtime. As it stands, they are owed between ¥350 and ¥400 per overtime hour, which is about half the minimum overtime pay in Japan. These unpaid wages, which have accumulated over the last 2 years, total ¥27 million for the eleven workers, but the company, according to NHK, is “preparing to file for bankruptcy.” Thanks to a non-government support organization, the workers have found new employment at another textile company in Gifu Prefecture, but that doesn’t solve the problem of their unpaid wages. The undergarment maker, Wacoal, which “informally” sub-contracted with the Ehime company, has said it will “donate” ¥5 million to “help the interns,” though NHK has not questioned whether they should be held any more responsible, since they benefited from these interns’ labor by being able to buy their wares at lower prices. 

One of the trainees told NHK that she was angry because she needs the money to pay for her children’s education back in Vietnam. She feels that all the businesses involved simply “avoid the matter.” The lawyer for the Ehime textile company says they are trying to work out a “reimbursement system” with the central government to pay the trainees their overtime, but it’s doubtful they will be able to supply the full amount. The NGO support group told NHK that this sort of complaint is common and, in fact, on the rise.

But if the government still seems to be sitting on its hands, at least some industry players are doing something. Tokyo Shimbun reports that the Hankyu-Hanshin department stores in the Kansai region have said they stopped dealing with the Ehime textile company when they heard about the problem and adopted a policy to not carry merchandise from makers who have been accused of labor malpractice. They also say they will try to help the eleven interns. 

More significantly, Asahi Shimbun reported in November that Uniqlo, after leaving Myanmar, where much of its clothing used to be made, has begun training Rohingya refugees in textile manufacturing at a camp in Bangladesh in partnership with the UN High Command for Refugees. Fast Retailing, Uniqlo’s parent company, has invested ¥100 million so far in the project. It is also making an effort to hire refugees as retail staff in Uniqlo stores throughout Asia. If the intern training program’s ostensible purpose was to help people in developing countries, Uniqlo’s policy is closer to being reasonable than the government’s, since it doesn’t make workers move to a foreign land. 

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