Trainee System Needs Overhaul - Part Two

Trainee System Needs Overhaul - Part Two

The poor working conditions of foreign trainees in Japan came to the public's attention back in August 2006, when a Chinese trainee at a pig farm in Chiba complained about the harsh work conditions and was told that his traineeship would be terminated. This of course meant that he would be banished back to China - trainees seldom get an extension unless the sponsoring company wants them. He went berserk and stabbed 3 people, including an official of the Chiba Agricultural Association, the very organization that had brought him to Japan in the first place. The official died. Since then, the Ministry of Agriculture and other trainee program-related ministries have started to review means of enforcing the rules of the program that are supposed to protect the trainees from these types of abuses.

According to the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, companies accepting foreign trainees and workers are mostly small-scale businesses with less than 19 employees. There were more than 180 documented cases of fraud or mistreatment last year (2005) and it is suspected that a lot more cases go unreported. In fact a Ministry of Health survey found that of 731 reviewed companies, a full 80% of them were violating the minimum wage law and labor standards law for their 2nd-and 3rd-year trainees. Obviously the problem is severe enough that the Ministry is allocating JPY400m (US$3.38m) to the organization tasked with looking after the placement of trainees, JITCO. The money is for increased monitoring of participating companies to make sure that they stay compliant with the trainee program rules.

However, we wonder if this budget allocation shouldn't be placed with a different authority? As another article in the Daily Yomiuri reports, JITCO appears to be part of the problem, with the body being responsible for a reported 60% of all trainee visas. JITCO apparently earns JPY308m for visa application services and JPY1.148bn from member company dues, more than triple the amount 10 years ago. I wonder how JITCO is using this profit?

With the falling birth rate and migration of the domestic workforce out of hard labor jobs, Japan clearly has to turn to foreign workers to keep things going. The government knows this and is in fact planning to expand the trainee system. Among the proposals are to increase the number of trainees a company can employ from just one for every 20 staff, to an unlimited number, and to increase the variety of jobs that a trainee can fill. Some employer organizations are even calling for rule changes to make it legal to bring in unskilled foreign workers in the same way that they can already do with skilled ones. Also, the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare is considering stiffening penalties for companies and organizations that mistreat their trainees. As part of this, they plan to recommend changes to the Immigration Control Law in cooperation with the Ministry of Justice. Their action plan will be decided by early next year.

In my opinion, however, the expansion can't go ahead until someone takes responsibility for properly protecting the welfare of the trainees. Although JITCO is being assigned this role at present, with an increased number of inspectors being put on patrol, there must be a better way. For example, the government could legislate to keep traineeships to just one year and make sure that classes from a local education institution -- which need new students -- are incorporated. Once trained, graduates should be allowed to become regular workers and enjoy the benefits of a minimum salary, labor rights, and the ability to get their visas renewed. Those that don't pass their first year should be sent home.

Already a step in the right direction is being taken, in the way that semi-skilled Filipino health care workers are to be handled. If they pass their language tests and industry exams, along with building a solid record during their training period, they will be allowed to stay and work in Japan indefinitely. Now that the immigration door is slightly open to foreign labor, the government needs to go all the way and allow the foreign laborers, whether titled trainees or not, to benefit more fully from their efforts.