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Role of foreign interns under gov't-backed program changing amid labor shortage

A Vietnamese technical intern sews industrial netting at Hashimoto Sangyo Co.'s factory in Bizen, Okayama Prefecture, on Sept. 14, 2017. (Mainichi)

While debate over revision of the Technical Intern Training Program was being carried out in the Diet in May 2016, The Japan Institute for Labor Policy and Training released survey results that could shake up the aim of the program for foreign nationals.

    Under the system, the goal is to contribute to the international community by bringing in workers from developing countries, who then undergo technical training in Japan and take their new skills back to their home countries. However, according to the survey conducted at the request of the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, the institute found that of the roughly 9,900 locations across Japan that are taking in foreign interns under the program, 70 percent of the reasons the companies cited for accepting foreign workers pertained to maintaining a workforce, while "international contribution" comprised less than 10 percent. Companies said they "couldn't keep Japanese workers for a set period of time" and that they wanted to "hire young people."

    Many small businesses in regional areas lamented the aging population, creating a lack of people entering the workforce. Under these circumstances, companies are struggling to keep their technical trainees as their workforce shrinks.

    One such company is industrial net manufacturer Hashimoto Sangyo Co. in Bizen, Okayama Prefecture. In the factory, technical interns line up silently at machines sewing netting. Looking upon the scene, President Saburo Hashimoto, 63, says, "Accepting technical trainees incurs a substantial cost, but we need them."

    Since roughly 20 years ago, the company has taken on at least 100 technical interns. Currently, about 40 employees plus nine men and women, mainly from Vietnam, work at the factory. While trainees continue to vanish from factories around the country, not one has left this company. When legislation to improve the system went into effect, the company was certified as an ideal place to send trainees, and their acceptance quota rose.

    Each month, the technical interns are paid around 120,000 yen, and work a maximum of two hours overtime per day. They can live in a room in one of the three two-story living facilities near the factory for free. Only 6,000 yen is deducted from their paycheck for utilities, and the company shoulders close to 350,000 yen a month for the living costs of the nine foreign interns.

    Hashimoto Sangyo also escorts the interns to the hospital, provides them with Japanese language classes, and takes them along on company trips. "If they are not treated like employees, there is no way that they will stay," says Hashimoto.

    But accepting them comes at a cost. Hashimoto Sangyo pays a monthly 5,000-yen "introduction fee" per person to a dispatch company in their home countries, and a monthly 21,600-yen "maintenance fee" to the Japanese group that accepted them. The total comes to about 250,000 yen per month, and Hashimoto says, "It would be cheaper just to hire young Japanese high school graduates."

    Each year, the company sends out job listings, but no local young people answer the call, and the company cannot continue operating without the interns. While he understands the original purpose of the technical training program, he laments, "In regional areas, solving the human resources problem takes priority."

    However, not all companies that accept foreign technical interns treat them as well as Hashimoto Sangyo. Some companies take the costs of accepting the workers out of the trainees' compensation, making for small paychecks. On top of that, some foreign dispatch companies charge the trainees several hundreds of thousands of yen to over a million yen to come to Japan.

    Associate professor Yoshihisa Saito at the Graduate School of International Cooperation Studies at Kobe University, who is familiar with the system and specializes in Vietnamese labor laws, says, "If we are to preserve the system as Japan's contribution to the international community, the central government should take responsibility and consider operating the program directly rather than using high-cost private intermediate groups."

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