Trainee System Needs Overhaul - Part One

Trainee System Needs Overhaul - Part One

The following article was first published in my Terrie's Take newsletter, and has been edited a little. I would like to point out that although I am critical of the Trainee system as it stands at the moment, the fact that the problems are being brought to light auger well for change and improvement. I feel that the ability to face up to issues like this is one of the strengths of Japan and its media.

Recently the Daily Yomiuri carried an article about an auto parts manufacturer in Akitakata, Hiroshima, which is being investigated for hiring more foreign "trainees" than allowed by the rules. The company apparently padded the number of its regular employees, so that it could bring on an additional 3 Chinese trainees to add to the 3 already working there. The company had discovered that not only were the trainees able to do the same work as locals, they are more than 50% cheaper.

While this case may not seem like such a big deal, it is the tip of a pretty ugly iceberg. The foreign trainee program, which started with the grand design of helping to lift the basic skills of Japan's neighbors, now appears to have become a pipeline of low-cost laborers to keep struggling small manufacturers and farmers going.

The trainees work/train under primitive conditions for very little compensation, and the fall-out from this seems to be increasing. Last year alone, 1,456 trainees, about 1.8% of the total, ran away from their postings, many going on to become illegal workers elsewhere in the country.

There are about 83,000 trainees accepted into Japan each year, about 160,000 in total, of which just over 80% are from China. They are allowed to work/train in 62 different types of jobs, such as agriculture, food processing, construction, apparel, and animal husbandry.

The numbers in agriculture are a particular eye-opener and foretell labor trends in this country. Young Japanese really don't want to work the land and thus there are now about 9,000 foreign trainees bolstering the sector, compared with just 2,200 Japanese high school graduates becoming farmers each year. That means there is a 4:1 likelihood that next time you want to buy a daikon or eggs directly from the farm, you'd better be able to speak Mandarin.

The trainee system really is a tough program. Most trainees for the duration of their 3 years have virtually no employment rights (they are, after all supposed to be trainees not employees) and are paid unbelievably low compensation - just JPY66,000 (average) a month plus accommodation in the first year, and a more luxurious JPY118,000 (average) or so for the following two years. Could you survive on this? We couldn't...

The treatment some of these trainees are receiving is pretty bad. In August, the press reported the case of a Chinese female trainee arrived in Japan to learn how to grow spinach and strawberries. But somehow she wound up in a Forestry company. While there, she was required to clean the company president's home and even polish his shoes among other things. During her first year, in 2004, she received an allowance of JPY50,000/month and JPY300/hour for overtime.

After she "graduated" from her first year and become a so-called documented worker, her salary was supposedly lifted to JPY112,000/month plus overtime. But in reality the company deducted JPY90,000/month for rent, futon lease (really!) washing machine lease, etc. To top it all off, one of her managers had her apartment key and about 4 months into her traineeship started visiting and demanding sexual services.

Now, clearly these are just a few cases among more than 100,000 people, but they point to the fact that the system needs changing. In particular, trainees need to either be given better compensation and pseudo work status, or the program needs to go back to basics and ensure that "training" and not just unpaid work is given to the trainees.