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Editorial: Prevent abuses of foreign trainee program

A law to improve the Technical Intern Training Program for foreign trainees from developing and emerging nations was passed during the current Diet session. The original aim of this 20-year-old system was to contribute to international development by sending these trainees home equipped with Japanese technical knowhow, and there are now more than 210,000 trainees from China, Vietnam and other nations now in the country.

However, the system has proven unable to stamp out illegal practices at some work placements, including failure to pay wages and forcing the trainees to work extremely long hours. This has earned strident criticism that the program is merely a way to exploit foreign workers, compelling them to do menial jobs for low pay instead of cultivating their skills.

The recently passed legislation was drawn up to respond to this criticism. Under the law, a foreign trainee program organization will be established by the Justice and Health, Labor and Welfare ministries to manage the system, and strengthen checks of intern work placements to make sure no labor law violations are being committed. If the firms or organizations hosting the trainees are found violating their human rights, the hosts will be punished.

The government must enforce the new system extremely strictly to guarantee foreign trainees can gain the skills they came here to learn in a healthy environment.

The fact is, violations of interns' rights had become severe enough to necessitate enhanced monitoring of the host firms. According to Immigration Bureau of Japan statistics, such violations were found at 273 host companies and businesses in 2015 -- a 13 percent increase from 2014. What's more, the figure has tended to rise every year, with especially high numbers of cases in the textile and garment sector, and farming- and fishing-related industries.

When a business takes on a foreign intern under the foreign trainee program, it has to go through its local industry association or chamber of commerce, which in turn supervises the program's implementation. In a standard work placement, the trainee signs a contract with a company or business owner affiliated with these organizations.

Until now, it was up to these supervising organizations to issue instructions to host firms, but it must be said that in many cases they failed to perform this function.

The recent legislation paves the way for the better class of host firm to continue a trainee placement for five years, up from the standard three. However, the general requirement that a trainee not change host companies for the first three years remains in place. Even if an intern is unhappy with their pay or other aspects of their work placement, they cannot choose a new host employer.

There is another problem: Technical trainees are recruited and selected in their home countries, and some of the organizations doing the recruiting force the trainees to pay an illegal "deposit." As such, there are cases of new interns arriving in Japan indebted to these organizations, meaning some may put up with bad working conditions because they need the money.

The trainee dispatch organizations are approved by their home governments, and there are more than 250 of them in China alone, which have sent 80,000-plus interns to Japan. In a supplementary resolution, the Diet called for solving problems with the dispatch organizations by concluding relevant agreements with countries sending trainees on to Japan. This process must be tackled quickly.

The Japanese government is planning to expand the number of foreign workers in the construction and other industries ahead of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games. As the domestic labor pool shrinks and the makeup of Japanese industry changes, the question of how to bring in unskilled foreign labor for long periods is becoming pressing. However, using the foreign technical trainee program to fill gaps in the unskilled labor market is simply wrong. The time to start discussions on this issue is now.

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