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Japan enacts laws to improve foreign internship program

The House of Councillors on Nov. 18 passed two bills to rectify the Technical Intern Training Program for foreigners and revise the immigration law to add nursing care jobs as a residence status.

The new laws will take effect within a year to revise the program -- which has been criticized as forcing foreign trainees into menial, low-wage jobs -- and add nursing care jobs to a list of internship programs. The bills' approval comes as Japanese society ages rapidly, and debate has grown over how Japan is going to deal with foreign laborers.

Justice Minister Katsutoshi Kaneda emphasized the significance of the bills during a session of the upper house Judicial Affairs Committee on Nov. 1, saying, ''Problems have occurred because the training program has been misunderstood in some quarters as a policy to secure workers. We will build a new structure to directly regulate internship locations to protect trainees.''

The Technical Intern Training Program was implemented in 1993. Its primary purpose was to contribute to the international community by relaying Japanese skills to developing countries. After yearlong on-the-job training, foreign interns have undergone technical training for up to two years. However, the participants were not protected by the Labor Standards Act and other related laws during their on-the-job training, and some were used as low-wage workers. Accordingly, the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act was revised in July 2010 to protect foreign interns under labor law.

The number of foreign technical interns has steadily risen annually, reaching 210,893 at the end of June this year. Chinese interns numbered 85,120, followed by 71,983 Vietnamese and 20,600 Filipinos.

Cases of illegal practices and human rights violations have been on the rise as well. According to the Justice Ministry, 273 institutions -- including business cooperatives, chambers of commerce and industry, and host companies -- committed unlawful acts such as failure to pay wages in 2015, up 32 from the year before. A separate Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry survey uncovered labor law violations at 3,695 host companies, including illegal overtime -- an increase of 718 from 2014.

The Gifu labor standards inspection office determined in August this year that the April 2014 death of a male Filipino intern at a casting company was due to overwork. According to Ippei Torii, director of the nonprofit organization Solidarity Network with Migrants Japan, ''The training system's stated objective to make international contributions is a fabrication. The unfair practices which have come to light are just the tip of the iceberg.''

The U.N. Human Rights Committee said in a 2014 report that Japan should seriously consider implementing a new system with emphasis on capacity-building rather than recruiting cheap migrant labor.

The measure to rectify the Technical Intern Training Program was approved in response to such calls. Japan will establish a foreign technical training entity sanctioned by the ministries of justice and labor to approve internship programs prepared by host organizations and firms, and to inspect the hosts. The new law also stipulates new penalties.

''This will make sure that the objective of international contributions is fully achieved and give good hosts an incentive to accept foreign interns by extending internship terms to the maximum five years,'' a senior Justice Ministry official said.

But even under the new law, foreign interns are basically not allowed to leave their hosts in the first three years of their internship. Some foreign organizations have been found to unlawfully collect guarantee money from prospective interns.

''In terms of learning skills, it is not appropriate for foreign interns to switch their host companies. But in reality, they are low-wage menial laborers. If foreign interns do not have the freedom to change their place of work, they will be put under the control of their hosts,'' pointed out attorney Shoichi Ibusuki, an expert in the foreign intern training system. He proposes establishing a new system to accept foreigners as workers rather than as trainees.

The measures passed on Nov. 18 will also facilitate foreigners' entry into nursing care as interns and certified care workers. The Japanese government stresses that demand for Japanese knowledge and expertise in the field is growing in Association of Southeast Asian Nations member countries where societies are expected to age much faster than Japan's. But the legislation also shows the need to address Japan's own care worker shortage.

The Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry says Japan will need about 2.53 million care workers in fiscal 2025, when baby boomers will be over 75. If things remain unchanged at that time, the number of care workers is expected to total around 2.15 million, or some 377,000 shy of the target, and foreign staff are in demand.

Nursing care facilities have high expectations for foreign workers. Under economic partnership agreements (EPAs), Japan has accepted care workers from Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam since 2008. But because the accords are governmental and the number of foreign care workers accepted is small, there are only about 300 such workers from these nations in Japan today. There are about 400 care worker vocational schools, colleges and universities in Japan, and around 250 foreigners are studying there. However, they are not allowed to stay in the country, except through the EPA deals. Once nursing care worker is listed as a residency status, foreigners will become industry-ready recruits.

On the other hand, nursing homes hosting internships are perplexed by the move to add care work to the list of technical internships. The head of a special nursing care facility for the aged in Tokyo says their facility will not accept foreign interns, and questions if such interns can communicate well not only with elderly people, but also with Japanese coworkers.

Nursing care also represents the first technical internship for a human-to-human service. The welfare ministry has been studying specific problems in response to a set of expert committee recommendations finalized in February 2015, and will likely require prospective foreign interns to have a certain level of Japanese language proficiency. In addition, the ministry will impose a cap on the number of foreign interns at each host care facility and ban foreign interns from engaging in homecare visits on their own.

Japan will also require potential foreign interns to be able to engage in everyday conversations within a year of arrival. However, there is no public structure to support Japanese language training, causing nursing care facilities worry over whether foreign trainees will be able to communicate at a high level. An official at another nursing care facility said, ''I hear there are some countries that have no concept of nursing care. We do not know to what extent we can entrust responsibilities to foreigners."

Yasuhiro Yuki, a professor of social welfare at Shukutoku University, expressed skepticism about accepting foreign interns at nursing care facilities. ''It will increase the burdens on Japanese employees to train foreign interns and even accelerate the turnover rate of Japanese staff.''

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