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Law to improve Japan's controversial foreign intern program to come into effect

Vietnamese interns clean a hotel room in Toyama on Sept. 4, 2017, as part of their training program. (Mainichi)

A new law to improve Japan's foreign intern training program is set to come into effect on Nov. 1, in a bid to make companies aware that the program is aimed for "international contributions" as critics say that it has become a cheap way for Japanese firms to secure unskilled labor from developing countries.

The law provides for the establishment of the Organization for Technical Intern Training (OTIT), which will supervise administrative groups such as business cooperatives and associations of commerce and industry acting as contact agents between host firms and countries from which trainees originate. Host companies will be required to create a training plan for each intern, which needs to be approved by the OTIT. If disapproved, the firm will not be able to accept interns.

To be approved by the organization, the companies will need to provide documents showing that the interns will be receiving the same level of pay as Japanese employees. In addition, living expenses such as those for meals and housing need to be agreed upon at an appropriate value between the host firm and foreign interns. The OTIT will also carry out on-site inspections of host companies as well as the administrative entities, and if they were found to have violated the training plans, their status to host interns would be stripped of or they could be ordered to suspend their businesses. Furthermore, host firms could face penalties such as fines and imprisonment if they commit human rights violations including abusing and threatening interns as well as confiscating their passports.

At the same time, firms and administrative organizations that show good results such as having a high pass rate for technical skill exams among their trainees could extend the maximum training period from the current three years to five and accept more interns.

Under the new law scheduled to come into force, nursing care will be added to a list of jobs offered to foreign interns -- the first human-to-human service under the program. The new law will be applied to 77 job categories, including nursing care, agriculture and fisheries, and construction-related occupations.

The number of foreign interns has been increasing every year, with 251,721 such trainees working in Japan as of the end of June 2017. According to the Justice Ministry, a total of 239 host firms and administrative organizations were found to have committed illicit acts against foreign interns over a period of one year in 2016. The most common such cases include unpaid labor.

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