Unbearable hours, threats of being fired: The abuse of migrant interns in Japan
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People across Japan have been shocked and outraged by a video showing a group of people beating a man from Vietnam who was working in the country under a scheme called the Technical Intern Training Program. This program grants visas to people from across Asia to work and gain technical skills in Japan. However, our Observers say that, in Japan, where immigration is restricted, companies are using this system to bring in low-skilled workers and that it is rife with abuse.
Back in January, Japanese media reported on the emergence of three shocking videos. The clips, originally filmed in September 2020, show a group of Japanese employees at a construction company in Hiroshima beating their Vietnamese colleague, a man in his forties. In one of the clips, a man yells at him for not responding in Japanese and then hits him. Another video shows the people beating the man with a broom in the back of a truck.
Eventually, he found help in the form of a union called the Fukuyama Union Tampopo, which took him under their wing and eventually shared the videos with the Japanese media. The union said that the man (whose identity has not been revealed) suffered this kind of violence for at least two years at this company, which he joined in 2019. The violence continued even though the body meant to oversee the internship was alerted about the abuse in June 2021.
Once this story broke, the Ministry of Justice demanded on January 26 that immigration services take immediate action to halt "human rights violations towards foreign technical interns.”
This man was working as part of the Technical Intern program, created in 1993 to give young people from across Asia an opportunity to gain professional experience in Japan while completing an internship for a period of two to five years.
Japan has a history of a tightly controlled closed-door policy toward immigration, limiting the small number of visas they hand out to skilled workers with higher education. But with an ageing population and a labour shortage on the horizon, the country has been slowly opening up. One key law in 2019 made it possible for “specified skilled workers” from certain sectors to get visas.
'If their boss treats them badly, they are not allowed to change'
In reality, however, many companies are using the Technical Intern program to bring in low-skilled workers, says Shinichiro Nakashima, one of the only lawyers specialising in foreign workers’ rights.
The Technical Trainee Program is supposed to train workers from developing Asian countries to return to their home countries with new knowledge and skills.
But it has actually become a system for bringing foreign workers to Japan to compensate for Japan's labor shortage in manufacturing, agriculture and construction.
In late 2021, there were more than 350,000 technical interns in Japan, most of them from Vietnam, China or the Philippines. The number dropped back in 2019 because of the pandemic and the closure of borders.
Our Observer says that this system in particular creates conditions ripe for abuse:
Many of them pay a lot of money – a million yen [equivalent to 7,400 euros] – to come here and then are in debt. They are paid minimum wage.
The program doesn't allow them to change their jobs so even if they don't like their work or if their boss treats them badly, they are not allowed to change. They don't have a choice.
From unbearable hours to unpaid overtime to threats of being fired after a workplace accident, the list of abuses reported by charities helping migrants, as well as the media, continues to grow.
Of 6,000 companies that use technical interns, 70% are thought to have broken employment laws according to an investigation by the Ministry of Labour in 2017.
Between 2018 and March 2022, the body that oversees these internships removed 285 companies from the program. Technical interns are also overrepresented in cases of work-related deaths.
Shinichiro Nakashima is the founder of Kumustaka, an association based in Kumamoto prefecture, in southern Japan, that helps support foreign workers who have a conflict with their bosses. He says many of his clients are women. From sexual and other forms of harassment to having their contracts terminated if they become pregnant, women suffer even more abuse than men within this program.
'They made it clear it would be better for me if I had an abortion'
Vanessa, age 25, left the Philippines for a technical internship in a healthcare centre in Kumamoto. Everything was going well until she became pregnant in April 2021.
They basically told me that due to my pregnancy I must be able to bear the consequences and responsibility. They said that Japanese people would distrust trainees because I got pregnant. During the phone call they asked me about abortion. I said I wouldn't do it.
It was the supervisor of my internship in Japan. In the Philippines, it's a crime. He should have realised he wasn't talking to a Japanese person – they could have access to a safe abortion. Only the mother of the child should decide whether to have an abortion or not.
What I wanted to do was work until the maternity leave [Editor's note: 14 weeks in Japan], give birth in the Philippines and then come back. But they didn't listen to me. I even went to a doctor to ask for a permit to say I could continue working and they said yes – but I couldn't take the nightshift or lift heavy things.
But I was forced to sign a paper that ended my contract. [The company and supervising agency of the internship] said I would have to leave my apartment, that I would be without an apartment and a job.
Vanessa ended up going back to the Philippines to live with her mother, who is helping to raise her son. In spite of her negative experience, Vanessa wants to go back to Japan when she can. She has even found another internship already.
I'm not asking for a lot. No money, no big things. I just want to voice the rights of trainees and what I deserve and what is fair for me.
Vanessa is not the only person to have found herself in this situation, even though technical interns are supposed to be protected by the Japanese law ensuring equal rights at work, which bans employers from firing or mistreating workers who become pregnant.
In 2019, the Japanese government actually issued warnings to companies that employ technical interns, clearly stating that they shouldn’t fire pregnant workers.
Some technical interns try to hide their pregnancies, which can lead to tragedy. A Vietnamese intern in the Kumamoto prefecture tried to hide the fact that she had given birth to stillborn twins in 2021.
The woman was later sentenced to three months in prison for having “abandoned” the babies’ bodies. Currently, the Kumustaka association is working to try and get her acquitted. This is the second instance of a technical intern giving birth to a stillborn baby after trying to hide her pregnancy in just a few months.
In 2017, the Japanese parliament adopted a law meant to ban employers from “restricting the liberty of interns without reason", and another law banning “hate speech” towards interns. But there are more and more reports of incidents like the Vietnamese intern who was harassed by his co-workers. Nakashima believes this is because most interns aren’t aware of their rights, especially those who speak little or no Japanese.